The Once and Future Witches is the second book by Alix E. Harrow, and I truly enjoyed her first book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, having read it out loud to my wife and teenage son. Full disclosure: these are two very different books. They are different in topic, in style, and in mood. I would imagine that there will be many who enjoy both books, but I don’t necessarily think it is safe to say that if you enjoy one you will enjoy the other. Let me elaborate …
The Once and Future Witches is set in 1893 in New Salem in a time just before the women’s suffragist movement had brought a measure of equality to the plight of women in our country. This outcry was met with considerable resistance both from the men who held much of the power, and the women who were unwilling to overturn the status quo or were perhaps afraid of the backlash. This tension is at times front-and-center, and at other times lurking just out of sight throughout this story. In fact, that tension is what dominates the mood for the book. It is brood-y, and angst-y, and tangible.
The story is told of three sisters who find themselves swept up into the changing climate of the day, one as an instigator and provocateur, a second as docile, resistant rule follower, and the third who just wants to be free to be herself and live her own life. There is a terrible shared familial history that has left resentment and deep pain. There is also a link to the ways of witchery that has passed through the women in their heritage.
At this point I want to pause and discuss how this book impacted ME. As a disclaimer, I am NOT a minority in virtually every aspect of who I am. I am a white, middle-aged man who is married to my high-school sweetheart. I am a Christian, and middle/working class. With that said, I have always tried to be sympathetic to those in the minority. While I am not an activist, I am at least very cognizant of avoiding any thoughts or behaviors that would be considered racist, sexist, etc. My standard for who I want to associate with has nothing to do with skin color, gender, sexuality, wealth or any other distinction, but rather if the person is good and kind and is making the world better than they found it.
With that said, there is a certain amount of guilt by association that I felt when reading this book. Throughout, women are portrayed as brave, heroic, and noble, fighting against suppression and injustice (and rightfully so). Part of me felt accused, targeted and harassed in this, given just how predominant the suffragist theme was used in the book. But there was also a deeper part of me that was cheering them on, celebrating their small victories, and grateful for the progress that has been made since this era of our country. I was conflicted over whether I (as a man) was the bad guy, or whether this was a simple plea for more understanding of the plight of women.
In the end, I was conflicted. I wanted to like this book more. (It was well-written, with compelling characters enduring an intriguing, multi-layered, surprise-filled story.) But then, it also felt like I was lumped in with the evil based on my gender. After much thought, I consider this unsettled feeling good, at least for me, because it forces me to consider any inappropriate biases I might still have, and required me to confront them.
For all these reasons, I think there will be many who will love this book, but others that may not. Ultimately, I gave it a 4.5 out of 5 stars, knowing that this will be a book that will stick with me.
(Thank you Orbit for the copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)