Alix E Harrow’s debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January was a poetic and romantic take on the portal story. While there were messages about tolerance and prejudice built into that book, her new book The Once and Future Witches takes a more political turn, albeit in a very allegorical setting. That setting is 1893 in the American New England town of New Salem, constructed after the complete destruction of Old Salem in a great purge of witches. Witchcraft has been all but wiped out when The Once and Future Witches opens, but there is a flickering pilot light that needs little encouragement to ignite.
The three Eastwood sisters are estranged but by various means all end up in the town of New Salem in 1893. James Juniper, the youngest of the three, is running from the death of her violent father who she was left with then the older two, Agnes Amaranth (middle sister) and Beatrice Belladonna both left seven years before in different directions. They meet again at a women’s suffrage rally where the crowd has a vision of a tower known to be associated with three witches long gone. Juniper joins the local suffrage movement but finds it toothless and feels that the best way to wrest power back is to restore witchcraft to the women of New Salem, and she convinces her sisters to help. But things are never that easy and the soon anti-witchcraft forces in the town, some with eldritch powers of their own, are arrayed against them.
Harrow herself has said in interviews that the idea for this novel came from marches that she attended for women’s rights in Washington DC in 2016. The Once and Future Witches takes that idea and runs with it, showing what can be achieved through collective action but also exposing the limits of that power when it is challenged the established orthodoxy. The path for the sisters and their comrades is far from smooth and Harrow does not shy away from the pain they suffer or the need for trade-offs and sacrifice. But there are also a number of romantic strains that run through the narrative.
The Once and Future Witches is an engaging stand-alone fantasy novel with heart and purpose. Harrow brings her lucid prose to bear in creating memorable individual characters who also at times serve as archetypes. She uses her story to highlight the plight of women in engaging and affecting political discourse, but not in a particularly heavy or didactic way. The story rattles along with cliffhangers, reverses, reveals, moral and ethical decisions and sacrifices. It confirms the promise that Harrow showed in her debut and will generate plenty of interest in what she might do next.