This may be a difficult one to write so forgive me if things get a little waffley…
With that in mind let’s jump straight in without too much preamble.
A sweeping tale of revolution and wonder in a world not quite like our own, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is a genre-defying story of magic, war, and the struggle for freedom in the early modern world.
It is the Age of Enlightenment — of new and magical political movements, from the necromancer Robespierre calling for revolution in France to the weather mage Toussaint L’Ouverture leading the slaves of Haiti in their fight for freedom, to the bold new Prime Minister William Pitt weighing the legalization of magic amongst commoners in Britain and abolition throughout its colonies overseas.
But amidst all of the upheaval of the early modern world, there is an unknown force inciting all of human civilization into violent conflict. And it will require the combined efforts of revolutionaries, magicians, and abolitionists to unmask this hidden enemy before the whole world falls to darkness and chaos.
I’ve actually opted to not give this book a star rating (I’ll probably set it to three stars in the places that don’t let you leave things blank so if you spy that anywhere that will be why) mostly because I don’t think I can judge this book particularly well as a white lady in the UK.
So this book is described in the authors note/acknowledgements as “a mythologisation of the real history of Britain, France and Haiti in the eighteenth century” – and knowing that was the aim did help me to get my head around this book a little.
The aspect of these three storylines about which I know the most is the British history portion – not only did I do a ‘Pitt to Peel’ paper for A level history (which sounds like it is about fruit but is in fact about British Prime Ministers) – but I also had what may have been an unhealthy obsession with the film Amazing Grace detailing William Wilberforce’s involvement in the abolition movement in Britain – I did a lot of reading around the subject at the same time and I’d say I have a fairly good handle on the way events are presented in the history books.* What I didn’t know much about was the French and Haitian aspects of this story – in some ways, this book was an interesting ‘bounce off’ point for research in that regard, I wanted to know how much was ‘mythologising’ and what was ‘real’. I like a historical fantasy that inspires me to go and look at that period of history and in that sense, this book was a success.
I suppose my difficulty is questioning whether this is an area of history we ought to be mythologising? While this book does deal with magic and slavery as separate things (at one point I feared it was a ‘find and replace slavery for magic’ job but thankfully it was not) it still entwines the two in a way that I’m not sure works. I suppose my fear is that by pushing even a small amount of the abolition movement into myth then it paves the way for the entire thing to start to feel like a fantasy story. Especially given that, while this was some two centuries ago, the ramifications are still being felt around the world today. The book tackles the abolition of the slave trade in England – but not only were we still paying back those families who benefitted from the slave trade with taxes until 2015, there is also a lot of current discourse around modern slavery. To push slavery into the stuff of myth, to place it alongside vampires and armies of the undead feels…just a little off to me. Hence my lack of a rating, I know I’m not the person who gets to decide what is problematic or not, and I certainly don’t want to get into a ‘who is the most woke’ discussion. I’m genuinely posing the question – where historical fantasy is involved how do we draw the lines?
Setting that aside for a moment to discuss the actual book, I still think H G Parry is a very talented speculative fiction author. This book had the same huge scope that her first book had, managing to handle a large number of interconnecting plot threads and also managing to keep the most important cards close to the metaphorical chest – only revealing them at the most intense and devastating moments. It’s good writing (though the book did drag a little at the start so one to definitely press on with). One issue I did have was in how the fantasy and historical elements were blended. Again I can only speak to the British aspect of the book but I found it jarring to have one scene where it depicted a genuine moment from history that we know happened with people who did exist and lived saying things that they actually said…and in the next chapter you have characters from history heading off to fight vampires? I didn’t feel the same disconnect with the French and Haitian portions – but I wonder if that is because of my distance from that historical narrative? I’d be interested to hear from both those who know those narratives well and those who don’t have the same British knowledge as I do – whether this is a product of ‘knowing too much’ or if the British segment is, in fact, more disparate?
Should you read this? I would say if you’re able to think critically about the material then it is an interesting take on a period of history. As I say it did provide some jumping-off points for me personally – I’ll be looking to learn more about the Haitian revolution for sure – so if that is why you read historical fiction/fantasy then I would say that might be a good thing as well. But if you’re looking to learn about Britain’s role in the slave trade and the arduous journey towards abolition – it sounds obvious but I think you need to head on over to the non-fiction aisle.
*This is an odd phrasing intentionally – as an ancient history/archaeology student I’d say the biggest thing I learned is that history changes.
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is out now!
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What say you? What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments below!