Real Talk & a Half-Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Alexis:

Do you think DNFing is talked about enough in the book/literary world? Or do you think it’s perceived as being too negative a topic?

I don’t DNF books often. I only do if I A) really can’t stand the writing style/topic or B) if I lose interest in the story. But I always strive to be as honest as I can when it comes to my reviews. When I read a book, I can’t ignore the fact that I have a creative writing background, so things that some readers can get over/don’t think are a big deal, I often can’t ignore.

All that being said, since I really enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I was looking forward to reading Harrow’s new book.

Unfortunately, finishing this book just feels like a chore. I got halfway through, and I found myself not caring about what happens to the main characters.

The Once and Future Witches follows three estranged sisters in the 1890s in a city called New Salem, the City Without Sin, after the original Salem burned down. The sisters join the suffragette movement and attempt to bring back the lost magic of witches. 

While I admire that this book focuses on sisterhood, magic and fairy tales, and the advancement of women, I was never sucked into the story. Despite all three sisters having interesting backstories, they don’t feel well-rounded on the page, and for some reason, I only found myself caring a little about Beatrice/Bella’s character, but not enough about the others to continue reading. 

I don’t mind a slower pace in books; in fact, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has a fairly slow pace. But The Once and Future Witches feels insufferably slow to me. While I love Harrow’s imagery, the writing in this book feels repetitive. The plot seems to move in circles rather than in a line. And important information was revealed later rather than earlier. 

This is a historical fantasy book, set in the 1890’s, as I mentioned previously. But the book is in present tense, despite the beginning being in past tense…? The present tense just doesn’t fit, and I think it was a strange choice. 

And finally, there are some uncomfortable moments for me when it comes to race. Obviously, in 1890’s America, race was a huge issue. I know that “colored” was the term used back then, so why do I feel uncomfortable reading it every time? Maybe because this is a historical fantasy book, which automatically means it’s set in an alternative timeline/alternate history (like New Salem).

Juniper, one of the sisters, curses like a sailor, which again, doesn’t seem to fit in the story. But I’m sure women cursed in the past, right? Oh, definitely. But I know for a fact that “hot damn” was not around during that time period. Most of the curses she spews sound extremely modern, and it takes me out of the story. So if Juniper can swear in a modern way, why couldn’t “colored women” simply be changed to black women? And the fact that Harrow described a Sioux woman as a “clay-colored woman” only made me feel even more uncomfortable. One of the sisters, Beatrice, is heavily involved with a character named Cleo, a black woman, and clearly she is all for equality, but it still doesn’t erase the smaller, uncomfortable details. 

Have you read this one? Do you agree or disagree with me? Maybe other readers will have a different experience; books are up for interpretation, after all.

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