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23 June 2020

Review: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by HG Parry

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Lisa Marie Pompilio
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians
HG Parry
Orbit, 25 June 2020
Available as: PB, 516pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
ISBN: 9780356514703

Snap verdict: It's complicated...

(CW for mention of enslavement and enslaved people).

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians.

Following up The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heap, which saw literary characters escape their bindings to cause trouble in New Zealand, Parry's A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians focuses on a very different kind of mayhem in late 18th century West Africa, France, Britain and the Caribbean.

It's an absorbing and at times harrowing historical fantasy. Parry imagines a whole overlay of magical oppression that reinforces the racial and cultural oppression of the period, and integrates it all into a history which well reflects - to this non-historian reader - the atmosphere, personalities and events of the time. It is very well done, making for an intriguing and, ultimately, engaging narrative. This is a book I enjoyed reading, although I do have some reservations - which I'll come to shortly. 

First, though, what is going on in A Declaration of the Rights Of Magicians

Well, to begin with, a young (six years old) girl is kidnapped in West Africa, enslaved, and trafficked to the Caribbean. She comes to be known as Fina, although that's the name her enslavers give her, not her real name.

A few years later, in Europe, magic is forbidden to Commoners. Nevertheless a young French boy, Camille Desmoulins, summons shadows and finds himself in trouble with the magical authorities. Provincial lawyer Maximilien Robespierre seeks to defend a young Commoner accused of a trivial act of magic. Barrister William Pitt does the same in London. We are also introduced to William Wilberforce, a young Englishman and a friend of Pitt, who is seeking a purpose in life. Perhaps he will join the Knights Templar who enforce the anti-magic laws?

Fina, landed in Jamaica, is subjected to magical control on a planation and to decades of backbreaking physical toil. Meanwhile the relationship between Wilberforce and Pitt develops as the former takes up the cause of ending slavery and the latter becomes Prime Minister. Robespierre rises through the ranks of revolutionaries as France teeters on the brink. Things come to a crisis as enslaved Africans in the French colony of Saint-Domingue rise in revolt, France declares itself a Republic and frees its magicians, and war with the United Kingdom looms - a war which will challenge all the constraints on magic that currently obtain in Europe.

As I have said, I enjoyed this book which is engaging and informative. Wilberforce and Pitt, on the one hand, and Robespierre, Desmoulins, Danton and the rest on the other, are of course real characters and as far as I am aware their "history" presented here in considerable detail is accurate (up to a factor of magic, obviously). Similarly while Fina is, I assume, an invested character, what happens to her is clearly representative of a wider catastrophe for Africa and its people (again, setting aside the magic).

It's impossible to ignore the fact that the book comes with almost spooky timing, being published only a few weeks after the toppling in Bristol of a notorious enslaver's statue during a Black Lives Matter protest (and amidst wider ongoing protest and debate). That makes it very of the moment, something that might not stand out so much if it was less rare for fantasy to deal with real world issues like this (it is getting less rare, but not yet so much that a book like this won't attract some attention for that reason). It's good to see a fantasy novel that avoids being another "Regency magic" story, engaging instead with the unpleasant realities of the period. I also enjoyed the focus given to the slave rebellions which are fully acknowledged as a source of freedom, as well as Wilberforce's Parliamentary efforts. 

However, I would qualify this a bit, for a couple of reasons. 

First, Pitt, Wilberforce, Robespierre et al get a lot more attention than Fina and her comrades. So there is exhaustive focus on the developments in the Parliamentary campaign against slavery, including lengthy (generally late night, well oiled) political and philosophical discussions between Pitt and Wilberforce, and equally detailed material on Robespierre's politics and actions. 

Meanwhile Fina's story - which covers some twenty years in contrast to a handful of years for the others - gets rather brief updates. It clicked with me about halfway through the book that this is because the book is primarily about the evolving relationship - politically and as friends - between Pitt and Wilberforce and about how these very different men cooperate to tackle slavery. It's a sign of how good Parry's writing is that the lengthy discussions between them are actually very, very interesting and the characters and humanity of the two men come fully alive. I have no idea how true they are to the reality, but as an able, energetic and principled Prime Minister, Parry's William Pitt certainly shines in contrast to more recent holders of the office, and Wilberforce's religious motivation is given respect and space to develop. The strain of realpolitik on this relationship and its eventual fracture is also a powerful theme. (Pitt as Prime Minister must pay attention to the practicalities and wider while Wilberforce, as a freewheeling idealist, need not). However, this does mean that while Fina and her comrades and their rebellion are in the end key to the story, it in in no way centred on them. 

There is also the place of the magic. Magic features here in several ways. As there are harsh laws in Europe against "commoners" using magic, and harsh punishments for breaking those laws, the position  of magicians as an oppressed group adds a new factor to, especially, the pre-revolutionary situation in France. Accordingly, when the Republic is declared it is "The French Republic of Magicians" (though most of the citizens are not actually magicians). 

Similarly, magic is used to control Fina and the other enslaved people, who are forced to consume an alchemical compound that robs them of their will (this is in addition to the chains and whips that feature in historical slavery). But in neither case is the outcome very different from the historical one (oppression stokes a bloody revolution in France and a harsh and exploitative slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean). For much of the book the magic is, in a sense, superfluous. While well thought out, it doesn't seem to be adding anything essential to the story or making a difference to it, except in the detail. 

In the end, it turns out that isn't quite right and I came to understand why parry has added magic to this version of the 18th century. it is there for a reason, rather than simply to drive a kind of "What if...?" game, and it does affect the fates of Fina, Pitt, Wilberforce, Robespierre and the rest. Moreover in the final few pages of the book (but almost not until then) we see that it will affect the future of San Domingue and of Europe. That's tantalising, though, because the story closes almost as soon as this is established. I think I smell a possible sequel and I hope that comes, because I really want to see how things play out and how characters who have been established so vividly might go forward into what looks like a much more magically-shaped world.

Overall, this is a powerful book with powerful themes. It wasn't perhaps quite the book I had expected but in discovering what it actually was I had a very enjoyable read.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.

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