Friday, October 23, 2020

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow (author), Gabra Zackman (narrator)

Hachette Audio, ISBN 9781549186424, October 2020

In 1893, in an alternate world slightly but crucially different from our own, witchcraft has been crushed out of existence by brutal purges and burnings, A few, small charms continue to exist, passed down from mother to daughter. Women who want any real power are seeking, in the US, to get the vote. Three sisters, though, raised on a hardscrabble farm by their abusive father, have their own viewpoint.

Beatrix Belladona, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper Eastwood (yes, the girls' father decided to name the youngest daughter James, after himself) grew up a closely united trio, protecting each other against their father, and learning the basics of witchcraft from their grandmother, Mags. Then something happeened, and Bella and Agnes have left not just the farm but the whole area, leaving Juniper behind. Juniper feels abandoned and betrayed, especially as years drag on and they never return for her, nor does she receive any word from them.

Then the day comes when Juniper, burning with long-stoked rage, and attacked by her father yet again, kills him.

It's been seven years since her sisters left, and Juniper has grown hard and bitter, and is now a fugitive from the law. She heads to New Salem, determined to find a way to bring back, not little bits of magic, but the Way of Avalon, true, full witchcraft. Or if that's not possible, as seems all too likely, as much of it as is possible after the several centuries since the burning of the Tower of Avalon and the Last Three, the last three full witches, by St. George. In this timeline, he purged witches, not dragons.

In New Salem, though Juniper has no way to know it when she arrives, Bella is working as a librarian, and Agnes is working in a factory. They're not in contact with each other; one several things Juniper doesn't know is that their father managed to divide them and send them off to very different fates. Juniper's arrival helps to trigger something that brings the three sisters together again, but they don't immediately find out how completely false their ideas of what happened when they were divided and separated, seven years ago.

And that's just the immediate background. This is a hefty, complex, twisty tale, about the year starting with the spring equinox, 1893, while witchcraft, gender relations, and the women's suffrage movement take rather different directions than they did in our world. Interlayered is the gradual revelation of the history of witchcraft. The sisters are in New Salem; old Salem was the site of the last big outbreak of witchcraft, and exists now only as a  museum of the defeat of the witches. There were other outbreaks, earlier, between the burning of the Tower and the Last Three, that we learn of later. They all end with witches burning.

In New Salem, Bella is working as a librarian, and quietly doing research into surviving charms, spells, and bits of magic, as she compiles a combination new grimoire and history of magic. She's quiet, studious, and cautious. Agnes worked in an orphanage before going to the factory. What she has taken from her experiences at home and split with her sisters is that survival means keeping the circle of what you'll protect small enough that it only encompasses yourself. Juniper is burning with anger and a desire for revenge, but also for a righting of the social order. When she arrives, it's not long before she has joined the women's suffrage organization led by Miss Stone. They are oposed by the Ladies' Christian Union, headed by Grace Wigan, and a city councilor, Gideon Hill, who is her adopted father.

None of the sisters wants to risk getting too close to anyone; it's not safe. But Agnes hasn't sworn off sex, and is now pregnant. Bella meets Cleopatra Quinn, a black woman who is publisher of a newspaper, the New Salem Defender. Cleopatra Quinn is well aware that the white women's suffragists won't welcome black women, and she has other secrets as well, that might be of more interest to Bella. Juniper reluctantly makes some friends, not just political allies, among the suffragists.

And the sisters gradually, even without openning up enough to figure out what really happened seven years ago, not yet, start rebuilding their relationship. This grows into the start of a group they call the Sisters of Avalon--an attempt to bring back the Way of Avalon, and the Tower.

We see the world of the factory girls, the suffragist women, immigrant women, black women with slavery in the not very distant past, and some glimpses of working class men. The reemergence of witchcraft, the assertion of women's power in various ways, and the opposition and pushback, enlivened by the fact that another power, that ought to be long dead, is alive and active in New Salem.

I love these characters, their story, and their world. It's wonderfully done. I do have, not exactly a complaint, but an observation. At sixteen hours, this is a long book, and there's something odd about it, at least to me. It seems to me to have the structure of a trilogy that for whatever reason wasn't split into its three parts, but was published as one volume. It didn't feel too long; it felt like there were three completely appropriate, properly spaced endings to the component volumes.

It might just be that I'm a bit weird, and you won't agree at all. Regardless, this is a wonderful story, and I strongly recommend it.

I bought this audiobook.

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