A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,
Paperback, 534 pages
Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.
I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.
The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.
As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.
Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.
Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.
This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.
A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.
On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details
This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.