I loved Alix E. Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors of January so much that it was in my top ten books of last year, so I approached her new novel with excitement, but some trepidation too. Could it possibly live up to her last work? Yet with promises of suffragettes, spells, anarchy and sister witches how could it possibly fail? I soon realised that this was going to be a very different book, embedded in American history but from a magical and feminist angle. Our main protagonists are the Eastwood sisters – Agnes Amaranth (the mill girl), Beatrice Belladonna (the librarian and researcher) and finally James Jupiter, the youngest sister with a wild streak and fierce loyalty to her sisters. This is New Salem, 1893, and since the burnings there haven’t been witches in this part of the world. However, snippets of the words and ways of witchcraft remain, hiding in plain sight. In the lullaby a mother uses to soothe her child, in the rhyme from a children’s game and even in recipe books. These are women’s spaces, and this old wisdom, that sits within the fairytale women tell their children at bedtime is accessible to anyone, once you realise it is there. The power lies dormant at a time when women are fighting more than ever to have a share in power at the ballot box. When the three sisters join the suffragettes of New Salem, they start to realise some of the power that Bella has been researching at the library. They each possess a different type of power and with the right ways and words they could wield it against those shadowy figures who would rather not see a witch live, let alone vote.
Although I struggled a little at first with the girls names, especially where there were other characters to remember, it was Bella who seemed to stick with me most at this point in the story. I think it’s because she was a gatherer of stories, so I felt an affinity with her. She comes to understand witchcraft from re intellectual perspective, she is studying and making sense of it from books, but gradually through first hand research. I loved that her research takes her to every corner of the community: from the local mill women and children’s rhymes; to the more marginalised black and Native American communities. She finds that women have been hiding their wisdom in a wealth of ways. On her travels she also finds the alluring Miss Cleopatra Quinn, who trusts Bella enough to disclose a society of black women, possibly the most marginalised group in society, who have a lot of shared knowledge including a set of secret tunnels under New Salem that prove very useful as the story progresses. The relationship between these women is one of the high points of the book for me and shows that the usually bookish and almost spinsterish Bella has unexpected reserves of passion.
This is a very character driven novel and comes alive when the sisters are together on the page. Agnes is the mill working girl, fired up by the rights of the women she works side by side with. Her need for witching comes from that lack of power, from knowing what it’s like to be hungry and not wanting that for her own children. I love that these girls don’t come from the big house on the hill with pots of money behind them; they come from a family blighted by poverty, the loss of their mother and a violent father. Jupiter particularly seems haunted by that past and there are secrets to be uncovered here. She is the more natural witch, the wild barefoot girl who has magic in her bones. She is furious when the other sisters get a familiar before she does. I also love that she walks with a cane and this cane is her strength throughout, not just something to lean on. Very cleverly the author weaves these marginalised people into the narrative and it’s refreshing to see these characters where their colour, sexuality or disability isn’t the story.
Harrow weaves together so much history here with folklore, myth and fairy tales. Our villain of the piece is an aspiring politician – which probably says more about our times than the story – but underneath he is something altogether different. He hates witches and possibly women too. He wants to use the ballot box for legitimacy, but his actions are those of a dictator. He amasses a group of enforcers for weeding out sedition, suffragettes and witchcraft. It is Jupiter who first sees what he truly is in a horrifying scene in the ‘Deeps’ – a basement prison that fills with water. Like the sisters he appears to have a ‘glamour’, a way of appearing to other people that masks the true face. It takes time for the sisters to realise they are in an age old battle, replayed across the centuries but they are determined that this time the witch will win. There are heart stopping scenes such as Agnes going into labour, or final confrontation that are visceral and heart rending. Harrow doesn’t hold back on the horror of how witches have been treated historically and their nemesis here is particularly cruel. The final confrontation isn’t just heart rending, it’s heart stopping. I couldn’t put the book down at that point because I was so emotionally invested in the sisters and their cause. Harrow does this to me. I always think that the fantasy elements will distance me from my heroes suffering, but then something will happen that floors me emotionally. I think there’s an incredible skill in creating this whole world of magic, but then connecting the reader to your characters so strongly that they feel their pain and their triumphs. I have loved spending time in this particular world and I’m so happy that for this reader, Harrow has done it again.