Monday With Mildred: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches book cover.

The Once and Future Witches

Last week was boring television witches pitted against Vampires in the modern era. This week we are in 1893 New Haven, an industrial town that is a hotbed of women’s suffrage, grinding poverty for the factory workers, and a maniacal anti-witch sentiment that bodes badly for three estranged sisters. This was my sister-in-law’s Christmas gift to me, and the reason I haven’t reviewed it until now is that I knew I would love it – she never misses – and I didn’t want it to be over too quickly.

There is a heading in front of every chapter.

A tangled web she weaves
When she wishes to deceive.
A spell to distract and dismay, requiring cobweb gathered on the new moon and a
pricked finger

The Once and Future Witches

The first three chapters introduce the Eastwood sisters and their world. Fairy tale language deceives the reader for the first few lines into thinking it’s a fairy tale, but things quickly get harsh in not a fairy tale way. “James Juniper Eastwood was the youngest. She was the wildest of the three.” She’s 17, and on the run from her hometown where she’s wanted for murder. She’s pissed at the world after running from a nasty piece of work called her father.

Sugar and spice
And every nice.
A spell to soothe a bad temper, requiring a pinch of sugar and spring sunshine

The Once and Future Witches

‘’Agnes Amaranth Eastwood was the middle. She was the strongest of the three.” She’s one of the factory workers and has been hiding from her family, her life, and her magic. Grey and miserable are the words that best describe her world.

“Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood was the oldest sister. She was the wisest of the three.” She’s the only one with a real job and ambitions and a normal life. Like the other two, she also has big secrets as she is also hiding her magic, and one other thing. Unlike the previous two, she is not exactly introduced with a spell. None of the sisters have seen each other in years, and their inadvertent meeting in New Haven one night is more than a little antagonistic.

New Haven is a sort of amalgam of the industrial towns of the northeast in the gilded age. Class distinction was a serious thing, and the color barrier was strong which does not slow Miss Cleopatra Quinn, reporter for the New Salem Defender. Quinn has a surprisingly good knowledge of where things are and what goes on in the white side of town. New Haven’s history also contains other real world similarities, like the Square Shirtwaist Factory fire where the girls were burned because they couldn’t escape their workplace. In our world that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. This kind of close but not quite fact grounds the world well for people who have a modicum of knowledge about the country a hundred and fifty years ago, and those who don’t won’t notice. It gives the book a feel of true history with a seamless magical reality.

The book is not short at five hundred plus pages, but it tells a lot of tale in that time. Alix Harrow’s writing is a not exactly taut, but definitely without a flowery nineteenth century glaze. I found it a really soothing blend of modern enough to keep me entertained without sounding too modern for its setting. She occasionally goes off on Tarantino-like side stories like The Tale of the Brother and the Sister, and the Tale of the Last Three Witches of the West. Character revelations are continual and generally more pleasing than shocking. I’m thinking of one in particular for people who don’t need all their characters to be straight.

The only thing I could think of as a negative about this book is the physical format. I hate deckle edge books. Not just because they’re pretentious, but because you have to carefully turn the pages one at a time. Am I lazy? No, I just don’t like having to use both hands to turn a page for no better reason than some people think it’s kewl.

The Once and Future Witches is a terrific story of healing rifts between sisters and fractures of the world. It made me laugh and later cry oh so hard. I loved all the characters and especially loved hating the bad guy who is seriously dangerous and you get a real sense of the danger because the author is not afraid of not only putting our heroines in peril but doing them actual, physical harm. The thrill is real here. This is a great book and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a period thriller, witch stories, sister stories. Heck any kind of story.

LINKS:

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