Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches (Redhook, 2020) begins with the familiar phrase “Once upon a time” but the novel is anything but a traditional fairytale. Yes, there are witches. But there are also suffragists. Yes, there are spells. But there are also women who fall in love with each other.
While Harrow loves fairytales “because they give us this shared language,” she hates them for the limits they impose. Through her main characters, the Eastwood sisters, she turns the familiar archetypes of Maiden, Mother, and Crone on their heads. “The Maiden-Mother-Crone triptych is something that I have always hated. It's pretty gross to define a woman's existence by her reproductive state at that moment,” Harrow says. “I wanted to be embodying and subverting it at the same time.”
As the story unfolds, women’s demands to rediscover and use magic parallel their demands for political power and social freedom. In the guise of a fairytale, The Once and Future Witches explores the long afterlife of family trauma, the evils of demagoguery, and the blind spots of the American suffragists when it came to overcoming divisions of race and class.
Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was a finalist for the 2020 Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. The Once and Future Witches is her second novel.