Georgiana Derwent's Reviews > The Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
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really liked it

This book is set in an alternative reality late nineteenth century, where witches were a fact of life until they were wiped out. Magic gave women a certain amount of power and freedom, but now both magic and women’s rights are frowned upon and suppressed. The story focusses on three sisters, as they initially try to make a life for themselves in the repressive town of New Salem and escape the shadows of an abusive father, dead mother, and other childhood traumas, and later try to restore women’s magic and standing.
It’s a good concept that’s well-executed. The setting is vibrant, the three main characters are well-drawn, and the magic system and history are carefully developed, with the idea being that you need “the will, the way, and the words” — the words are especially interesting, generally being drawn from nursery rhymes and similar, with the idea being that women kept them alive and passed them on that way.

It’s a deeply feminist book. Magic and witches make neat metaphors for women’s rights, though issues such as backstreet abortions, the vote, and equal pay also play into the plot directly. Themes of workers’ rights, racial equality, and LGBT issues are also woven in.

There’s quite a lot of darkness in the book: lots of physical and emotional abuse of children and teenagers in flashback and a full range of unpleasantness in the present day timeline from poor working conditions to sexual harassment to straight up torture. And an extremely traumatic childbirth scene. I feel like some of this was necessary to show the characters’ struggles, heighten the stakes and bring in a bit of realism, but it did mean I found it a hard read at times, and I’m not usually one to shy away from heavy themes.

I was similarly in two minds about the villains. There was one overarching villain who sought to repress and harm the sisters with a toxic mix of magic, politics, and force, plus plenty of other deeply unpleasant men. I usually like villains with a bit more nuance and "shades of grey" but it was quite refreshing for a change to have antagonists who were genuinely awful - from their sexist attitudes to their propensity to kidnap ill babies and imprison women in fetid cellars! - and who you could unashamedly and straightforwardly root against. Though at one point, slightly out of nowhere, the main villain seeks an alliance with one of the main characters, and he was so irredeemably awful I could see no reason it would even cross her mind to say yes or spend any time considering it.

Overall though, I thought this was a good and somewhat unusual read which did some interesting things with some big themes while still keeping a sense of magic.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 13, 2020 – Shelved

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