Magic and Sisterhood Soar in ‘Witches’

I read a lot more than the books I review, sometimes because I get distracted by kinda trashy books or nostalgia (the less said about the intersection of these, my rediscovery of R. L. Stein books earlier this year, the better) and sometimes because I just can’t think of anything clever to say about a book, even if it is on my list. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow a few months ago was the latter—it was fine, but I couldn’t think of anything more to say about it.

But Harrow’s second book, The Once and Future Witches? That’s a different story.

Pro tip: Don’t start this late at night.

As in any good fairy tale, this story is driven by a thing of threes—in this case, three sisters, all of whom have been through too much and have plenty of reason to hate the others. Chance brings them all to New Salem, where the eldest, Bella, accidentally lets off an explosive bit of magic that brings them all together for the first time in years. It’s all uphill from there as they grapple with they ways they’ve each hardened to the abuse and trauma from childhood and the years since. Those callouses might have been enough to make them go their separate ways once again were it not for the growing suffragette movement—and the reclamation of magic twisted within that call for equal rights. 

The youngest sister, Juniper, leaps into the movement, followed reluctantly by Bella. The middle sister, Agnes, tries to stay out of the issue as much as she can in order to keep her factory job—and hide her swelling belly as long as possible. But when the suffragette movement distances itself from the subject of magic, Juniper and her sisters band together to form a new movement that celebrates and proliferates magic among the women of New Salem. They soon step afoul of a city council member and mayoral hopeful Gideon Hill, who shifts his campaign to target the growing resurgence of witchery, and the sisters are right in his crosshairs.

Between Future of Another Timeline, Magic for Liars, and Witches (an unintended confluence of book availability), it does feel like I’ve been reading a lot about rage and inequality. But nothing about Witches felt stale or even well-trodden. Harrow makes razor-sharp parallels and metaphors with her story elements, though never in a way that feels cheap. For example, witchcraft is compared more than once, both implicitly and explicitly, to the audacity of a woman stepping out of line or speaking her mind. Which, unfortunately, does track with historical and modern demonization of women of certain types. But the witchcraft in the book doesn’t only feel taped in for that purpose. It’s not a subtle message, but it is an effective one.

The Wicked Witch’s only real crime was speaking her mind.

I also appreciated Harrow’s nod to modern discrimination. Bella falls for Cleo, a Black female reporter and fellow (this is not a spoiler; you can see this coming a mile away and when it finally does happen, you cheer), while another member of their organization is revealed to be a trans woman. Traditionally, we don’t see many characters like that in books, even though they certainly would have existed historically, particularly in an organization made up of outcasts and the downtrodden, and it was refreshing to see those characters act not just as a representation of gender- and/or sexuality-based bigotry but as people supporting others and being healed through the sisterhood within the organization.

And despite having all those complex pieces in play, Harrow doesn’t forget to develop her main characters. As sisters thrown into the same forge of a bad upbringing, they read as distinct characters on the page, with their own virtues and vices, their own scars and mistakes. I’ll admit I didn’t fall for any of them at first, but after about the first third, I adored all of them in their own way. They feel like people, not roles, an irony given how dedicated they are to fitting within presumed stereotypes they believe are necessary to embody for most of the book.

Witches isn’t utterly perfect. In the same way I didn’t love the characters at first, I wasn’t initially smitten with the book as a whole. Particularly in those early chapters, Harrow seems to delight just a little too much in metaphor and analogy, with descriptor after descriptor stuffed into even the most banal sentences. But when it finally gets its feet under it, Witches takes off. Unluckily for me, I reached that point at about 11 p.m., which meant, naturally, I couldn’t sleep until I reached the end.

It was worth every sleep-deprived minute.

Witches is beautiful and lovely and tragic and I cannot say enough about it.

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