Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

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Just from reading the introduction I knew that this was the book I had been looking for and finally found. I was searching for something witchy, and I also wanted something in the classic story telling style but fresh enough to be its own thing. This is precisely that and with other elements I didn’t even know I wanted until I read it.

This is set in 1893 in a slightly alternate America and focuses on three sisters who represent the Mother, the Maiden, and the Crone. The powerful sort of magic that ruled the old world and “true” witches are said to have died off years ago. The days of old where witches spoke with dragons and cast powerful spells is long since become a memory. However, remnants of magic still linger in certain women who know the Ways and the Words to cast small spells…spells that help with sickness, birthing, cleanliness etc. They are innocent spells that had mostly gone unnoticed until recently. There’s a fervor against witchcraft stirring in the hearts of the citizens of New Salem and it’s intensity grows with each season that passes. Even the mundane and harmless spells are beginning to be things whispered and held secret lest someone find out.

The book opens with the three sisters unintentionally re-uniting after seven years of separation. Their father was an abusive alcoholic and for complicated and long winded reasons, they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. All three happened to be in New Salem as a spell was cast that revealed a Black Tower in the middle of the square that caused quite a ruckus. The oldest sister was the one that cast the spell, and after that the three sisters became Bound in a way that they can feel each other through a link. They can find each other in the city, they know if one of them is in trouble, and what they’re feeling etc. This bond is mostly unwelcome at first and part of this story is how they learned to trust each other again after childhood betrayals. However, all three feel a pull towards magic that they haven’t experienced before. The youngest sister, Juniper, has a goal of restoring witchcraft, true witchraft, to the world again, and so the three sisters each in their own way start to put the pieces together on how to bring back magic.

The overwhelming tone of the book was rage. A specific kind of rage meant for those that keep you down and try to make you thank them for the boot that’s on your neck. The suffragette movement was tied in to the plot from the start and it’s interwoven into the storyline through to the end. The youngest sister is avid that she wants to help the suffragette movement and thinks it’s possible to gain the right to vote. All the while in the background something more is going on, it’s not just the sisters trying to restore true witchcraft to the world…. shadows are doing things they shouldn’t, and there’s something dark trying to keep them from attaining their goal.

The youngest sister, Juniper, is wild, “feral” and in complete favor of trying to bring back witchcraft. She’s also a suffragette and wants to combine the two movements into one united front. She’s reckless, makes decisions based on rage and pent up energy. She’s all bluster and not much forethought – but that also makes her fearless. She takes no shit from anyone and is as hard as nails.

The middle sister, Agnes, has a more gentle heart and thoughtful way about her. Over the years she has tried to play mother bird and foster broken and missing children but it always ends in pain. To prevent further despair, she’s drawn a “circle around herself” and doesn’t let anyone in. She can appear to be cold and uncaring but it’s a fragile shell she’s built to protect herself. She’s pregnant but doesn’t care much for the father, she doesn’t hate him, but she’s not a fan. She plans on keeping the pregnancy and thus the number of souls inside her circle is now two – which complicates things when her younger sister wants her help with her dangerous plots.

The oldest sister, Bella, is the one who tried to abandon magic altogether. She immersed herself in studies, in her books, and works at the library. She had considered magic to be dangerous and wicked and best left in the stories their grandmother told them. But she finds herself inexplicably drawn to old texts about witchcraft and spells, and sets all the events into motion as if guided there by something other than herself.

The three of these women couldn’t be more different, I found them all to have a clear voice of their own, motivations all their own, and yet it was all very familiar since I’ve heard stories about the three witches since I was little. I think my favorite was Agnes, but I liked the other two just fine.

I liked the world building in this, the way that magic is passed on, the kinds of spells that you can perform, the difference between male and female witches – I found all of it old school and nostalgic and exactly the classic kind of witch book I was craving. Herbs, chants, hand movements – all of it played a part in witchcraft.

The writing in this wasn’t flowery, but it was eloquent, poetic, and flowing. It had a distinct style to it without overburdening the story and taking away from what was being said. I found it read super quick, I finished this whole book in a day. I used to do that often but I can’t think of many times that’s happened this year. I also find that I respond well to descriptions that rely more on smell than on visual descriptions. I have a difficult time with lengthy visual descriptions since I don’t always form a good picture in my head. However, descriptions of sounds, smells, and touch can bring a scene to life for me – so much of the feelings and emotions of this book were using other senses rather than being overly reliant on visual.

The pacing was kind of slower depending on what you were looking for in a book. This isn’t an action packed book, it focused just as much on character relationships as it did with the plot. I’d also say that maybe some people wouldn’t like the glaring messaging this book had, but I thought it made its points eloquently rather than bludgeoning you with it.

This was a great book that hit me at just the right moment in my life. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in reading about old school witches, sisterhood, motherhood, and raging against the machine, or if you enjoy the subreddit r/witchesvspatriarchy.


  • Plot: 11/15
  • Characters: 13/15
  • World Building: 13/15
  • Writing: 14/15
  • Pacing: 11/15
  • Originality: 11/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 9/10

Final Score: 82/100 or 4/5 stars on Goodreads