Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Review: Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future Witches 
by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My high expectations have been upheld and more! Our trio of witchy sisters is perfect. The romance, the fear, the heartache, physical and mental torture... the list goes on. Add to that mini retellings of famous fairy tales or fables, twisted versions of nursery rhymes or songs that are used to chant spells, AND some of the best LGBTQ+ representation (that didn’t feel forced or faked at all); and you get one of my fave books I’ve read in the last 2 years. This stand-alone novel by Alix E. Harrow is a brilliant work of literature that brings so many believable, yet unique, elements together from our world and sets us in a world where the magic works.

If I were to have one teeny tiny criticism of The Once and Future Witches it could be that it ignores that Paganism and/or Wicca exist as religions in our world. Although I suspect Harrow did this in order to simplify the difference between a religion in our world and the actual magical calling in her own. Obviously the spells that Witches perform today are more prayers than anything as they do not have instant success like those in the book. As a solo practitioner of Wicca for more than 20+ years I respect her decision to disregard the magical arts as known in our world and make hers clearly a layer of addition that is fictional.

The Writing
I could probably give you 1000 words on just the magicalness and relevance of quotes in this large novel. Looking at my notes it appears I highlighted more quotes in Harrow's novel than I have in all the books I've read for the last two years! I'm not a big highlight person on my Kobo (and never in a print copy; then they are written down elsewhere or a sticky stuck in to flag quote). So for me to have highlighted so many is very telling. My personal favourite among them all is this:
"Maybe magic is just the space between what you have and what you need.”
This could easily be a movie or limited series (like 8-10 episodes would be perfect). I seriously hope someone like Amazon or HBO is looking to pick this up immediately! I can even imagine some of the actors to be cast. What was weird however was my constant fixation on Giancarlo Esposito (who is POC) as being Gideon Hall. Our evil bad guy has to be a white male. Due to the time period, the racism and sexism invoked means our bad guy can be no one other than a white male. Maybe it's because I just finished watching the Mandalorian; but I couldn't get Esposito as the lead evil out of my head (lol).
Our three sisters elegantly 'fit' into the stereotypes of Mother, Maiden, Crone; and yet at the same time any of them could play any of the three in theory. This we see the fluidity of the female as she ages. The supporting cast really makes a difference here too. While our three women are all caucasian; we have some lovely supporting characters that are POC and the disparity in class and status is well represented. I do wish that there had been more of a certain character or two but it's a large book as it is and I think it balances out nicely.

Clever Re-tellings, Songs & Nursery Rhymes
I've read a lot of retellings of fairy tales, myths, and children's stories over the years. Few are as well done as this. We encounter little stories like Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and others that are well known. However they are twisted a bit to give us new outcomes or morales. And so that they fit nicely into the core story Harrow is telling us.
There are also little spells at the beginning of each chapter. Each is a snippet of a commonly known nursery rhyme, song, or lyric. For example one of that is slightly twisted is:
"May sticks and stones break your bones, 
And serpents stop your heart. " 
Below that there are instructions about what ingredients are needed for the spell. It's really quite clever and these precede each and every chapter. They were one of my favourite little things.

As my first read for 2021, I have to say that, I'm afraid now that nothing else I read this year will measure up. Although I'm sure that won't be the case; but you just never know.
For anyone who like stories about witches, Salem burnings, magic, women/feminism; but also for those who have a faint interest or desire to read some interestingly spun historical fiction that has real magic.
Without a doubt Alix E. Harrow has become one of my favourite new writers of the last decade and I look forward to many more wonderful stories from her. To date she has written just two books that are both elaborate fantasy stand-alones. This is a refreshing change to a genre that has long been bogged down by unending series, or ones that go for 10+ books and are difficult for new readers to get into. A perfect starting point for someone wanting to try a more modern fantasy story without engaging in a huge time commitment (~550 pages).

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Kaisievic said...

Thanks for the book review, Mel - I'll have to check it out.

Kaisievic said...

Okay, I've just downloaded it on Audible - yay!

Mel said...

Hope you enjoy it!! :)