I loved the cover of this one – and the premise, which sounded great. However, I don’t think I’d appreciated just how gritty a read it would prove to be – but that’s down to me rather than Harrow. It’s not her fault that this book appeared at a time when all our lives are being twisted into something we can no longer call normal, with no end in sight. So I have put all those considerations into my back pocket as much as possible, because a book of this calibre deserves to be read mindfully.
BLURB: In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box. But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.
REVIEW: This is an alternate history, of sorts. Because just imagine that instead of women being discriminated against because they are physically weaker and often objects of desire, often encumbered by helpless children – there is an extra twist of fear. That they are witches. And when they were witches, women were often in charge. Until the nexus of their power was burnt, along with every practitioner the witch-hunters could get hold of. But many women still have a few household charms that they whisper to their daughters, when no one is looking, with bits of advice on how to stay safe. Except for the Eastwood sisters, who’s mother died in childbirth, leaving them to the mercy of their brutal father – and a beloved grandmother, who lived in a tumbledown cottage in a forest. Theirs was an upbringing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy – and from being a tight-knit unit, they were finally ripped apart in a welter of anger and betrayal.
And this is where the book starts… I found it initially a hard read. The setting is in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, where capitalism is red in tooth and claw and workers’ rights are simply not considered. Especially if those workers are women and children. The writing is beguiling – poetic and beautiful and each sister’s strength and weaknesses are portrayed with insightful compassion. I did worry that this was going to be one of those beautifully written books with an ultimately bleak ending. And I hope it won’t be regarded as a spoiler if I reveal that I was mightily relieved when it didn’t turn out to be the case.
I am also conscious that this review sounds as if there isn’t much going on – but this book is packed with intrigue, tension and sudden, violent bursts of action that had me reading far later than I’d wanted to. In short, it is a stunning portrayal of a lovely premise – I particularly enjoyed Harrow’s playing about with the wording of nursery rhymes. And I highly recommend this passionate, moving book to anyone who enjoys reading about witches. While I obtained an arc of The Once and Future Witches via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.