Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow

Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix Harrow
Publisher: Redhook Books
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Length: 528 pages
My Rating: ★★★★★
5/5 stars

SUMMARY

“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.”

REVIEW

Between this book and The Midnight Bargain (review coming soon!), I think my new favorite oddly-specific subgenre of books is “ultra-feminist witches fighting the patriarchy with books”. 

More specifically in The Once and Future Witches, three sisters caught up in the suffragist movement in their alternate United States reawaken magic that had long been erased. This book felt so real that, on several occasions, I had to stop and ask myself if some of these characters were real historical figures. They weren’t, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t feel like they absolutely could have been. Even the most fleeting of side characters had a personality that felt lifelike and multifaceted. Coming from a family of three sisters myself, I loved the focus on the sibling relationship and the power that can come from it. This book was beautifully written, smartly plotted out, and carries a message like every good fairy-tale should. Instead of analyzing three aspects of the book, I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite quotes that I earmarked throughout my read!

“Witching and women’s rights. Suffrage and spells. They’re both…” She gesture in midair again. “They’re both a kind of power, aren’t they? The kind we aren’t allowed to have.”

pg 47

Except she doesn’t get to choose for herself anymore. She smooths her blouse over her belly. “I can’t start any trouble. For her sake.”

Juniper looks down at her hand. “Oh, I think you’ve got to. For her sake.” She meets Agnes’ eyes, challenging. “Don’t you want to give her a better story than this one?”

pg 126

“I wonder sometimes where the first witch came from. If perhaps Adam deserved Eve’s curse.” His smile twists. “If behind every witch is a woman wronged”

pg 222

In short, I really loved this book. I’m fully ready to go take up witchcraft and smash an oppressive patriarchy. On that note, I will also leave you with one of my favorite tumblr text posts of all time and a reminder to my American friends: GO VOTE.

Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The book legendborn sits atopa stack of two other, untitled books. Beside it is. a white vase with eucalptus leaves in it and, on the other side, asun-bleached sunflower lays sideways. All of this rests on a wooden tray, surrounded by blankets and pillows.

Title: Legendborn
Author: Tracy Deonn
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry books
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Length: 490 pages
My Rating: ★★★★.5
4.5/5 stars

“After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.

A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.

And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.”

Review

Urban fantasy is so difficult to do right, y’all. It’s easy to suspend reality in a completely fake, made-up world because it’s the author’s world! They are god, and they can do whatever the heck they want with it to make everything make sense. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, has to walk the delicate lines of creating a new reality without suspending too much of our reality. In that sense, I think that’s where Tracy Deonn shone. She took the realities of our world and the realities of life for a young black girl in the South, and still managed to make it magical and empowering at the same time. Honestly, there wasn’t an aspect of the magic that pulled me out of my reading experience – it was the use of YA tropes that gave me pause. The initial timeline of this book only covers a few weeks with a lot of action all packed into a short timeframe. As a result, the love interest in the book had to develop at the same breakneck pace. Without giving too much away, it felt very insta-lovey and eventually gets a magical explanation which I am undecided on. You know what would’ve happened if I pledged my entire life to the guy I was dating at 16? I’d be a mess. A hot freaking mess. He was in a punk band and I distinctly recall the sweetest note he ever wrote me – a yearbook inscription that started out with “You’re really hot”. Young love at its finest. But, I digress. I’ll need to read book two before I can truly decide how I feel about that character’s relationship, so I’m only taking a half star off for it. 

This was an extremely inclusive and diverse book, which I adored. I think even when some books try to be inclusive, they tend to utilize tokenization or focus the entirety of a character’s arc on their ‘otherness’ instead of treating them like a whole, complicated, and nuanced human being. We need to show more characters living out their lives regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and Tracy Deonn did a great job of that. Though I can’t speak from a place of knowledge for some of the topics Deonn touches on, I appreciated how she handled them and think it was a well-balanced portrayal of a wide array of individuals. On that vein, I’m going to highlight some of the issues Deonn brings up and how they’re addressed. 

Profiling

In the first few chapters, an officer gives Bree and her best friend Alice a ride back from a student event gone awry. The scene itself goes – 

‘How ‘bout you, girlfriend?’ Norris’ eyes find me in the mirror. ‘I’m guessin’ need-based?’

Alice stiffens, and my hackles raise. I’m not his girlfriend and I’m not ashamed to have financial aid, but that’s not what he’s asking. ‘Affirmative action?’ is written all over his knowing sneer. 

‘Merit’ I bit through gritted teeth, even though it’s none of his business either way. 

He chuckles.  ‘Sure.’

Legendborn pg.30, Tracy Deonn

THIS. Regardless of how anyone feels about affirmative action, I think we all could agree that the assumption anyone gets into a competitive program for anything less than their skill is shitty. Assuming that just because someone is black they didn’t actually deserve to get into a good  program? Absolutely awful.This was well handled and well presented in the book, and I appreciated the inclusion of it. 

Gender

In this book, there is a character that is referred to with they/them pronouns. It was so meticulously and seamlessly done that I didn’t even notice the difference at all until I was two thirds of the way through the story. Greer was well presented and shown as more than just the sum of their parts – they were smart, caring, and a good friend. Again, Tracy Deonn did an excellent job of showing that a diverse array of characters are nuanced and contribute so much more than just their race or gender identity. 

STOP RIGHT THIS SECOND TO AVOID A MASSIVE SPOILER.

Have you stopped?

Are you really sure you want this?

Scroll past it real fast right now or forever hold your peace.

Bree’s Ancestry

Listen. A massive theme in this book is highlighting the privileged lives the Legendborn live thanks in part to the fact they can track their family lineage all the way back to King Arthur’s times. Juxtapose that with with Bree, who only knows that once upon a time her family was enslaved in this same land. It painted an amazing picture of the tightrope Bree walks in her newfound world. BUT THEN. Tracy Deonn, writer extraordinaire, hinges an entire plot twist on the fact that Bree’s ancestor is also King Arthur? That her great-great-something grandmother was a victim of rape by her enslaver? That her ancestress, pregnant and afraid, ran away because her enslaver would rather murder her than have the power of King Arthur pass to a mixed race heir? WOW. The depths this took the book to had me stunned. It was a painful and beautiful moment as Bree connected with her line of ancestors through magic and tapped into King Arthur’s legacy as his one true Scion. It left me stunned and absolutely speechless. I absolutely had not expected that and keep thinking back to it like “damn. That was… damn. Wow.”

So, 4.5 out of 5 stars for Legendborn. Would’ve been 5, but in my heart even an amazing ending and some phenomenally written characters cannot make up for the instalove that every 16 year old book character seems to experience.