RogerBW's Blog

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E. Harrow 29 December 2020

2020 fantasy. In Gilded Age America, there's no such thing as witches: they were burned, and all that sort of thing was stamped out. But there will be witches again.

There's a lot of similarity to The Ten Thousand Doors of January: the setting, obviously, but also the grinding oppression of a system which simply says that you don't matter, and nobody will care about what's done to you, either because they're party to it or because they've got their own problems and know that taking a share of yours too may just drive them under. Which is a thing that needs to be told again, but not necessarily a thing I want to read just now.

So this is a good fable of social rebellion, but for me it's too much that and too little a solid story. Magic needs "the will, the words and the way", i.e. specific enchantments to do specific things… except when it doesn't. It's repeated several times that the Eastwood sisters, our protagonists, aren't particularly special people or the Chosen Ones or anything like that… but there's never any thought about why, if that's the case, it took so long for someone to do the things they do.

The stuff that happens is great: there's some sense here of the need for both a reasonable public-facing group and a terrorist organisation if you want to promote social change. (Though the reasonable group gets forgotten later on, as its members either become terrorists or fade out of the story, which suggests that this may have been accidental.) But everybody's playing at My First Revolution rather than learning from what's happened before (and yes, I know, it's 18something, but they could at least look at France and America); they're selfish and stupid and make obvious mistakes, and if their opposition were competent as well as simply powerful they wouldn't stand a chance. The characters are plausible (though they disbelieve each other terribly easily) but never sympathetic. And every time they think they're getting somewhere, things get worse.

And one particular plot element from January that irked me because it seemed to devalue a great deal of the social angle is here too.

If you don't know a lot about real social change and civil disobedience, and don't mind a fantasy version of it that only works because it is a fantasy, then that's fine. But I'm sorry to say that this book irked me and I found myself very much out of sympathy with it. I'm all for stories of women discovering or creating their power; I just wish they were more interesting women, the power weren't a convenient short cut that doesn't work in the real world, and the narrative were a bit less stodgy and repetitious for the benefit of the hard-of-thinking.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 11:18am on 29 December 2020

    roger, I would be interested in you unpacking your criticism here, as it hints at a lot of interesting observations that I would like to hear.

    I would understand that you may be disinclined to do so.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:14pm on 29 December 2020

    Not sure quite what you're asking for. More specifically?

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 12:24pm on 02 January 2021

    The third paragraph second sentence and the fourth paragraph playing my first revolution and the dichotomy of a reasonable group and activists and terrorists and how the former fade away in the story.

    These are information dense paragraphs and I wanted to be sure I understood your points as the arguments seem to have stuff I may be missing information on to parse correctly.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 02:02pm on 02 January 2021

    Well, one of the protagonists joins the New Salem Women's Association (agitators for female suffrage), but quickly tires of their mannered approach (and their exclusion of non-white women) so goes off to start what is in effect a revolutionary/terrorist organisation. And I thought "good, so now we can see how this works: the suffragist terrorists make the suffragist normal people look more reasonable and mainstream". But we don't; the NSWA is constantly presented as weak and ineffective, it catches the official reactions to the terrorist group's propaganda of the deed (remaking statues, sneaking into a hospital and magically healing people), and it then fades out of the story (except for one or two of its members who join the terrorists). At the same time the terrorists have absolutely no propaganda of the word; as far as the townspeople are concerned they're not demanding anything, reasonable or not – they're doing unpredictable and scary magical things, and thus playing right into the hands of the guy who before any of this has started has been running on a platform of protecting people from scary magic.

    Which leads into the other point, which is that – all right, only one of these people is particularly book-learned. But nobody ever thinks "hey, there have been underground political movements before, maybe we should learn from the successes or at least the failures". They're inventing it all as though they were the first oppressed people ever to try to do something about it, as if there were nothing history might have to teach them. (Or, in the case of the protagonists, taking advantage of the things the non-white people have already set up.) Oh yeah, there's union agitation over in Chicago, but that's a source of fellow-feeling, not technique or tradecraft.

  5. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 12:49pm on 03 January 2021

    Thank you for spending the time to answer my question. Most appreciated.

    It's one of the traits I really appreciated about you is your ability to analyse and breakdown the links in the chain of cause and effect etc.

    Thank you.

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