Robyn Reviews: The Once and Future Witches

It’s safe to say that October is one of the best months in book publishing history. First, we had The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – now Alix E Harrow is throwing her own (pointy) hat into the ring with The Once and Future Witches.

It isn’t fair to any of the other books being published in 2020 that they have to compete with this. The Once and Future Witches is one of my favourite books of all time. Reading it is like being immersed of a bath of magic and witchcraft, hopes and dreams, power and joy. Alix E Harrow wields words like a master sculptor creating their pièce de résistance. There’s nothing I can say to adequately sum up how incredible the experience of reading this is, other than it ignites your soul with the fire of all those who have been wronged for wanting to be more than they are.

“She is a woman who understands the value of words, especially the ones they don’t want you to say.”

Once upon a time, there were three sisters. Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood was the eldest, the Crone, banished from her home only to find a new one in the New Salem College Library. Agnes Amarantha Eastwood was the middle sister, the brave one, the Mother, holding a punishing job in the mill where she could avoid having to care about anyone else. James Juniper Eastwood was the youngest, the Maiden, a firecracker of a girl who burned with the injustice of the world and wouldn’t rest until it burnt down and a new one arose in its place. These three sisters were lost – to each other, to their purpose, to themselves – but they would find each other again, and the world would tremble with the power of the three united.

“She crumples the map in her fist and keeps walking because it’s either run or set something on fire, and she already did that.”

Bella was the character I empathised with the most – the planner, the reader, most at home amongst her books and research. Given a problem she went to the library and worked. Bella loved her sisters fiercely but also tempered them, soothing Juniper’s more bloodthirsty elements and prodding Agnes into action when she faltered. Bella would never be the spokesperson, the radical thinker, the ideas generator – but she would always be there giving the ideas roots and branches, turning them from abstract dreams into tangible, inevitable reality. No plan would get anywhere without a Bella.

“Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed.”

Agnes was the beating heart of the trio – at first cautious, careful, burned too many times, but later the fierce, clawed figure of a mother protecting her cubs. Juniper saw Agnes as a coward, but really Agnes was the brave one – the one not afraid to say no when everyone else insisted she say yes. I understood Agnes less than the others, but then I’m not a mother – I don’t know what it’s like to hold another life in your hand that you value so much more than your own.

Juniper was all thorny branches and tangled thickets and bloody, scraped knees. Juniper was what happened to a dog kicked once too many times that suddenly scented weakness in its owner. Juniper didn’t know words like restraint, or forgiveness, or subtlety – she answered every question with a fist and a curse hissed under her breath. She was not the swooning Maiden of your fairytales. I loved Juniper – loved how fierce she was, how determined, how she never apologised or thought but simply rushed in with no thought of the consequences. The world would be a very different place with a few more Juniper’s in it.

“All the caring was beaten and burned out of her, and now she’s just hate with a heartbeat.”

The plot is excellent, twisting like smoke, but the three sisters are by far the most important part. This book is moulded on the strength of their characters and the sheer beauty of Alix E Harrow’s writing. The fact that the plot is so clever is merely the cherry on top (and the little references and similarities to The Ten Thousand Doors of January an extra little garnish).

Read this book. Listen to the story of the three sisters and let them speak to your soul. Maybe these words will be the ones you need to spark the will and the way, and change your life for the better.

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 13 October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

 

‘The Ten Thousand Doors of January’ is a beautiful book. The writing is as gorgeous and magical as the subject matter, taking you away into a world of infinite doors and infinite possibilities. It’s a book about dreams, about believing in something more, about daring to go looking for something beyond your front door. For those who use fiction as escapism, this is the ultimate escape.

“Sentences may alter the weather, and poems might tear down walls. Stories might change the world.”

The protagonist, January, is a seventeen-year-old who grew up as the ward of a wealthy collector, Mr Locke, in turn-of-the-20th century Vermont. Her father works for Mr Locke, travelling across the globe to find treasures for his collection. She never knew her mother. January is in some ways a spoilt child, living in a large house and given education and luxuries that other girls like her – darker skinned but light eyed, an ‘in between thing’ as Mr Locke calls her – couldn’t access. However, she is also a caged child, kept as a jewel in the collection. She has to be good – quiet, docile, a pampered pet rather than a person of her own. There’s no space in her life for adventures.

But of course, adventure finds her as it is wont to do.

“I wanted wide-open horizons and worn shoes and strange constellations spinning above me like midnight riddles. I wanted danger and mystery”

There are two narrative threads woven throughout the novel – January’s life, as she’s living it, and ‘The Ten Thousand Doors’, a book she found in a random chest in her sponsor’s vast collection that tells a story of something January barely dared to believe in – the Doors between words. It’s a very effective technique, gradually revealing secrets without sacrificing narrative pace. ‘The Ten Thousand Doors’ sections were written in an entirely different font of different size and with different formatting, clearly differentiating them from the main plot.

The cast of supporting characters is varied and intriguing.

Mr Locke, the collector, is adored by January – more present in her life than her own father, he moulds her into his vision of the perfect daughter – but he keeps her isolated and shut away, and it’s clear that there’s more to him than there seems.

Julian, January’s true father, plays more of a cameo role in her life, but you feel for him every time – this loving man who so rarely gets the chance to see his daughter, and whose daughter resents him for it.

Jane is the badass warrior woman we all need in our lives, but also complex with her own difficulties and emotional traumas.

Samuel is the least substantial of the main cast, but in a story about hopes and dreams he has a role to play.

I won’t mention too much about Adelaide or Yule – you can find out their story for yourselves.

At times, I did struggle with the childlike tone of the narration. January is seventeen but reads much younger. That being said, she’s lived a very sheltered and pampered life, and this is a book about dreams and adventure and other things we’re constantly told are childish. The tone of the narration fits the story – it fits January, the girl who dared to dream when everyone tried to lock her in a box and make her conform. She refused to grow up; refused to grow out of believing in stories. This is a book which demands that the reader let go of their adult cynicism and re-find that childish optimism – that there’s more to the world than there seems.

This isn’t a book for everyone – the plot can be somewhat predictable, and it’s a book with capital V Villains rather than the more complex, relatable villains that add so much interest to a story – but for those who like beautiful prose, stories about hope and dreams and other worlds, stories about going looking for adventure and believing so much in finding it that you can step off the map entirely, this is the book for you. I hope it takes you somewhere else for a while.

“It is my hope that this story is your thread, and at the end of it you find a door.”

 

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 10th September 2019
Paperback: 14th May 2020

The Ten Thousand Doors of January was Alix E Harrow’s debut novel. Her second, entirely unrelated, book ‘The Once and Future Witches’ will be published by Orbit on 13th October 2020.