Published: 13th October 2020
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Trigger warnings: Misogyny, references to sexual exploitation, animal death
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.
This book is, literally and figuratively, over five hundred pages of pure magic. With the aid of mythical influences and a boundless depth of imagination that are in evidence within more or less every iota of her superlative writing, Alix E. Harrow has conjured a story so vivid and resonant and impeccably detailed that it will live forever in the memory.
It is a historical fantasy that serves as an ode to witchcraft, age-old fairytales and folklore, yet it also has much of its heart set firmly in reality by acting as a celebration of feminism that takes numerous different forms. Everywhere you look there is literary brilliance, from the evocative concept and gradual, unmistakable building of the plot to an extraordinary cast of characters, not least the protagonists.
The year is 1893, a time where the existence of witches is a thing of the past and any semblance of power a woman wants to obtain must be sought by way of suffrage. On the spring equinox, the three Eastwood sisters are drawn separately to New Salem town square, where a mysterious tower has materialised and is inscribed with the mark of three interwoven circles. It soon disappears, but there is no doubt that it was a work of magic, creating fear among the local establishment.
James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna are suddenly reunited after years apart, during which time they regarded each other with a mixture of acrimony and regret. Led by the feral Juniper, whose face can be seen on many a ‘WANTED’ poster, they settle their differences and come together to try and restore the art of witching, using the power of words and sheer determination.
After Juniper’s ideas prove too radical for the more conservative New Salem Women’s Association, the trio begin a society known as the Sisters of Avalon, recruiting widely and carrying out daring demonstrations of witchcraft across the city. They eventually rediscover the tower and its many secrets, but mayoral candidate Gideon Hill is hell-bent on stopping them and he turns out to be a more terrifying adversary than he originally seems.
The plot develops beautifully and while the pace cannot be described as fast, there is never a dull moment to be found. It begins by introducing the three sisters and from that point onwards, I was wholly invested in their story as the stakes rose higher and the suspense reached palpable levels, culminating in a dramatic and powerful showdown at the end.
Each chapter is prefaced by a spell, and the witchcraft in this book is inspired by traditional aspects such as nursery rhymes and variations on mildly obscure sayings. Spirit familiars play an important role and there is the occasional mention of broomsticks, but there is plenty of originality to be found here too, courtesy of Harrow’s own compelling mix of academia and escapism.
One particularly nice touch is the inclusion of short stories at various points, told in the form of fairytales by one of the characters and usually starting with ‘once upon a time’. They were all beautifully crafted, adding to the magical vibe that the book seemed to possess and serving to immerse the reader more deeply within it.
The prologue and the epilogue are both told in the first person from the perspective of Juniper, but everything else in between is in the third person present tense, switching frequently between the thoughts and activities of the three protagonists. This narrative brings the story to life, with each sister having her own subplot as well as distinct abilities and characteristics.
Indeed, the characters are among the book’s biggest strengths, to the extent that many of the minor supporting cast are superbly developed. The writing is such that you could almost see the mischievous smile of Cleopatra Quinn; the vacant coolness of Grace Wiggin, and the glint in Henry Blackwell’s eye. However, this story belongs to the Eastwoods.
Juniper is truly irrepressible. She is wild and feisty and fiery; an absolute force of nature with a very sharp tongue. There is something childlike about her view of the world which does at times give way to petulance, but in many ways she is all the better for it, and she just makes you root for her. Tough but endearing, she definitely leaves her mark.
Agnes is possibly the most complex of the three and she took the longest to grow on me, but I enjoyed her storyline. She is the sister with a survival instinct, which is made even stronger due to the fact she is pregnant and eventually gives birth to a daughter who goes on to play in important part in the plot. While Juniper wears her heart on her sleeve, Agnes in more inwardly resilient.
Bella was my favourite character of all. She is smart and studious, tireless in her perusal of books and library records in pursuit of the spells needed to recover the Lost Ways of Avalon. Underneath that lies a determination and spark that grows over the course of the book, and the slow burn of her romance with Cleo is executed to perfection.
Cleo is a bit of an enigma to begin with, but she is extremely likeable and charismatic throughout. I also connected with Mr Blackwell and Jennie Lind, while there is something strangely charming about August Lee as you gradually learn more about him. As for Gideon Hill, he is a tremendous villain; multi-layered and oozing malevolence. His smooth exterior conceals a vast array of secrets.
The setting of New Salem was very well realised, providing an intense atmosphere that seemed to contain a lot of darkness and gloom. This was augmented by settings such as the graveyard, the dank prison cells, and the underground tunnels. There was also a hint towards class and racial divisions in the shape of New Cairo, which was impressively conveyed.
There are many differences between this and Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors Of January, but the quality of the writing is just as good, if not better. It is graceful yet purposeful, eloquent yet thoroughly captivating, transporting you into its fictional world. The only criticism I could possibly offer is that plot goes slightly back and forth, but in truth that was never a problem, for the storytelling was unfailingly exquisite.
Overall, this book is simply outstanding. It is written with a literary flourish, with characters that shine brightly and a plot teeming with ideas and atmosphere. It is the bewitching one, the entrancing one. The one you do not read too quickly for fear of reaching the end. It is set in 1893, but here in the dying embers of 2020, it brings rare delight.
I cannot praise this book enough. As I say in my review, everywhere you look there is wonderful writing, supplemented by excellent characters who are right at its heart. One of my best reads of the year, for sure.