Review: The Once and Future Witches - Alix E. Harrow
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Published: Orbit/Little Brown Publishing, October 2020 My Rating: 1.5/5 stars
“One witch you can laugh at. Three you can burn. But what do you do with a hundred?”
I tried. I really did. Three separate times in fact… I think it’s time for me to accept that this book, and Alix E. Harrow as an author, just aren’t the right fit for me.
I feel a bit of a déjà vu, as last year around this time I started my multiple attempts of reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January and couldn’t for the life of me get into the story. After eventually finishing it over a month later, after 2 false starts, I ended up not liking it.
At this time, after 2 identical false starts, I’m on my third attempt of The Once and Future Witches, and I’m struggling harder than ever. Considering the experience with Ten Thousand Doors of January, I’ve decided not to finish the final 30% of this book.
What I liked:
Similar to The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I was immediately fascinated by the synopsis and began highly anticipating this book, despite having never read anything by the author before. The story combines a historical tale of the suffragist-movement of the late 1800 with a fantastical narrative of witchcraft and magick. Honestly; with the way misogyny and witchcraft have been closely interwoven throughout history, you cannot tell me that that isn’t a brilliant concept. I loved the way the novel set off and set up the frame-work for its story. Unfortunately, these great ideas were pretty clear to me within the introduction, and after that, the novel offered little else to keep my interest…
What I didn’t like:
My main problem with The Once and Future Witches was my failure to connect to anything; the same feeling that left me feeling so completely indifferent about The Ten Thousand Doors of January..
Part of this, I discovered here, has to do with Harrow’s prose, that’s constantly on the edge of purple. I love a lyrically written novel, but I don’t love the use of nonsensical metaphors ´for the sake of lyricism” (Think Stephany Garber and at times Sarah J Maas). Both Harrows novels suffer from this, and it takes me out of the story completely.
My second problem with Harrow’s writing is her incredibly flat characters. I described January as “flat as a doormat”, but this was even worse. I can see how part of that was intentional: the three sisters are based of the classic archetypes for female characters in folktales and paganism (the Crone, the Maiden and the Mother) and their traditionally attributed characteristics. The story does little to elevate them above these archetypes however, making them in essence more stereotypes that fully fleshed characters.
Last but not least: this 500+ brick of a novel moves at an absolute snail’s pace. Some of my all-time favourite fantasy novels are slow-burners, but this book just went out like a dying light. I don’t say this lightly, but with a little cutting of unnecessary info-dumps, over-explaining of the obvious, and general parts that didn’t move the plot along; this book might have been cut in half.
If you’re looking for an, in my opinion, better, more mature and more diverse novel centring a trio of sisters, witchcraft and nature-based magic: I’d recommend Tessa Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear.
Many thanks to Little Brown Publishing for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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