Nov 052021

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow 

Synopsis: A revenge fantasy wherein three sisters in the early 1900s fight for women’s sufferage while resolving personal issues, and bringing back magic.

Book Review: This book is pretty much the definition of Light Reading. It flows well, it moves quickly, and it’s not difficult to read. Interesting things keep happening. The characters are very archetypical, so you know who you’re reading about very quickly. The villians are irredemiable and flat, the good guys are unobjectionable and sympathetic. This is a good book if you’re looking for something light to pick you up. Unlike most revenge fantasies, it’s not bloody or angry, it’s actually pretty lighthearted. Which, while not what I look for in a revenge fantasy, actually worked really well for several of our readers. More about that in the Book Club section.

My one major complaint about The Once and Future Witches is the same complaint I had about Alix Harrow’s earlier novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (no link, because apparently I never wrote a review of it?? WTF self! We read it in book club and everything!). That complaint is that there is never any inkling of danger. We are never worried about our heroines for more than a few pages. Any time a bit of tension creeps into the story Harrow immediately dissolves it and fixes whatever the danger may have been. It’s as if she’s apologizing for letting the story develope tension.

This becomes so common that when Harrow does try to raise the stakes, we don’t believe it. We go from “never worried for more than a few pages” to “never worried.” Like, “Oh no, everything has been destroyed, and all is lost? Pff, whatever, I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Lo and behold, a few pages later it is. (Doors of January had a similar problem. Late in that book a character was supposedly killed, and no one in the book club believed he was actually dead for even one paragraph.) I guess this is the type of stroy Harrow prefers to tell, since it’s been a strong theme in two novels now, and there ain’t nothin wrong with that, per se. It just made it harder to hold my interest. I would have been fine with it in a novel of less than 300 pages. Clocking in at over 500, I just got too bored to keep going. I made it 70% of the way by the time book club day came around.

Magic also is a complete cure-all for any snag in the plot. If the heroines have a problem, there’s a magic solution. Something inconviencing you? There’s a spell for that! This is basically just an extension of the “tension is not allowed” thing, though.

Anyway, it’s fine if you want a doorstop of light reading. Personally, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s decent for book clubs. The analysis of what works and what doesn’t for different people is pretty interesting. There were readers in our book club that really loved this. The audience this will resound with is what I earlier described as the “white woke woman.” It’s basically a revenge fantasy for the tarot-loving side of Twitter. So I predit it’ll do well at the Hugos next year. :) They really loved this, and I’m glad it worked for them! It’s wonderful to find something that’s joyful and speaks to you. If you consider yourself that sort of person, I would definitely recommend this, it seems to hit all the right buttons. The conversation was interesting, as basically there was agreement as to what the flaws are, but the degree of how much a flaw mattered varied greatly. What some people found boring others found charming, etc.

One thing that was brought up was the observation that the novel seemed disrespectful to real-life suffergates. It implied that this was a problem that women just needed to try harder or just want it enough in order to solve. It seems true in the novel’s world, due to magic being a tool the women have. In the real world (it was pointed out) there are far more complications, real trade-offs to be made, and sacrafices that many women simply can’t make, especially those with children. Reducing that actual struggle to the cartoony depiction in the book felt revisionist and white-washing.

I dunno how to feel about that. It’s a fair accusation, but also it’s a revenge fantasy, so does it really matter? I’m a huge fan of The Crow, a revenge fantasy for young males, and does it really matter if it portrays society incorrectly, or that Eric is invincible and never in real danger? No, not really, the point is reveling in the revenge. So what if the real world is complicated and messy? I guess it comes down to what you were expecting from the book.

If this was shorter, I would recommend it for book clubs. A few hundred pages of this would be great. For as long as it is, it felt like it was beating a dead horse, and it wore out its welcome with the people who didn’t love it. Several of us didn’t finish it. If your book club is mostly the type of people who would enjoy this, Recommended. But for general audiences, Not Recommended.

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