20 July 2021

#Review - A Radical Act of Free Magic by HG Parry

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio

A Radical Act of Free Magic
HG Parry
Orbit, 22 July 2021
Available as: PB, 495pp, e
Source e: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9780356514710

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy A Radical Act of Free Magic to consider for review.

Following last year's A Declaration of the Rights of MagiciansA Radical Act of Free Magic completes Parry's Shadow Histories dualogy, taking us back to the early 19th century, to revolts by enslaved people in the Caribbean, debates over abolition in Britain, and revolution in France. Again we meet William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister, and William Wilberforce, abolitionist and simply the nicest man in fiction. And Fina, who has freed herself and joined the revolt on the island of Saint Domingue. And - a newcomer - Napoleon Bonaparte, who is about to take a hand in French affairs.

And, of course, the Stranger. The Enemy. The puppet master pulling everyone's strings, shaping events, offering help here and there only to withdraw it again when he's got what he wants.

The atmosphere is, I would say, darker than the first book. The revolt led by Toussaint Louverture on Saint Domingue met with success, but was then opposed with unmitigated savagery by the British. The British are nevertheless being driven back, but Fina's dream of spreading freedom to Jamaica seems as forlorn as ever. In Britain, the efforts of the abolitionists are making no progress. Pitt's health is failing, his enormous workload and magical affliction undermining his constitution. The French Revolution, which seemed to herald liberty for the oppressed magicians of Europe, has drowned its makers in blood. 

Against this background, realpolitik plays out, idealistic dreams compromising with raw power. There are betrayals, disappointments and fresh dangers as war sweeps Europe. And worse, the friendship between Pitt and "Wilber" seems to have broken down under the weight of those betrayals. That friendship, at the heart of the first book, had sustained the two men in the darkest of times and Parry's portrayal of it crumbling - her sympathy for both, and her account of their estrangement - is actually very moving. It's part of the delicate dance she does with history, preserving, as far as I can see, most actual events while giving them a whole new significance. So for example, Nelson's victory at Trafalgar was not a defeat of an actual invasion fleet carrying troops but of a naval force that might have joined and led such a fleet. And no, the French and Spanish fleets didn't have the supernatural support of a... well, no spoilers, you'll have to read on to find out what. 

A story that involves magic and monsters can, obviously, take liberties, but the human stories here - whether about Pitt and Wilberforce, or enslaved people taking their liberty in their own hands - are still true and affecting, a reminder that history is about people and that those people aren't simple.

It's also, and perhaps this is more important in the end, a thumping good tale, one that holds the reader's attention throughout. Even when the ostensible subject is two middle aged white men in an office, every sentence, every word builds up a rounded portrait of their relationship, dramatising the tension between different notions of duty, between the needs of friendship and the needs - perhaps - of country, of wider humanity. It it as much a moral narrative as one of events, as it should be, because in fantasy, as in life, the ultimate questions come down not to cleverness and skill but in the end to morality, good and evil, strength of will and courage - which are strange characteristics, you might think, for middle aged white men in an office but which matter here a lot.

Above all, in re-presenting this period of history, Parry has brought so many things together. At a time in history when slavers' statutes are falling (I hope they will continue to fall!) and British history is being challenged to retell its darker stories, the two books in this duopoly show how global events weave together, how the Napoleonic Wars are about more than "hearts of oak", Nelson and the Duke of Wellington (actually, he's not on the scene yet). In doing that she does a real service to the truth, even though in fiction.

In summary - gosh, this was good. I could read more instalments of this story, if parry were to write them, but I suspect it will stop here, and that's probably right. I'll watch eagerly, instead, for what she does next.

For more information about A Radical Act of Free Magic, see the publisher's website here.

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