Superficially, the story is as old as time. Three sisters are born in a rural area, living a fairly meager existence. Their mother dies, their father becomes cruel and only their wise grandmother gives them love. When grandmother dies, the two older sisters are shipped off, leaving the youngest to deal with her abusive father. They lose touch with each other and the youngest becomes feral and angry. She assumes she’s been abandoned by her sisters.
The three sisters learn words and charms from their grandmother. These are simple things, rhymes that make life just a little easier. When the three woman become adults, these charms are mostly forgotten. Then one day, evil comes to the town of New Salem and the women are pulled together by forces they barely knew existed. Soon, they are at the center of a revolution.
As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that this is so much more than a story about three witches. This is a novel about the oppression of women by men (and sometimes other women). The Once and Future Witches is both fantasy and reality. Although the novel is set in a fictional past, it is thoroughly modern. Just substitute shirtwaist factories and suffrage with economic justice, reproductive rights and domestic violence.
The writing is very clever and often made think, look twice at what I just read or smile. The spells are drawn from fairy tales and childhood nursery rhymes, which were very relatable and simple. No need for eye of newt, cauldrons or memorizing complicated spells. These were so simple, any woman could do them. And that was just the point. ANY woman could rise above, be more, reach her full potential, could be a witch.
It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the layers of meaning. This book won The Robert Holdstock Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2021, given by the British Fantasy Society.
Rating: 5 Stars, Grade A+