The Enlightenment, but make it magicians. That little phrase made frequent appearances in my brain as I read H.G. Parry’s delightful historical fantasy, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. The cast of characters included real historical figures such as William Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, and Toussaint Louverture, and three countries in a re-imagined version of our world. The fight for liberty is very similar, except in this version the poor and oppressed are fighting for liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the right to practice magic. Knowledge of the actual history isn’t necessary, but those who remember from high school and college will get a kick out of how close Parry hews to real events while still writing an enchanting tale.
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians opens with one character, an African woman renamed Fina by her captors, in a slave ship on her way to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Her harrowing opening offers one view of the stakes characters are fighting for. We slowly learn that, centuries before the events of this novel, vampire kings ruled Europe. They were removed at great cost, but remnants of their harsh rule remain. No one but aristocrats and royalty are allowed to practice magic. Commoners and enslaved people are subject to harsh magics and penalties if they use their natural talents. By the time the 1780s roll around, enslaved people on Saint-Domingue and the poor in France and England have had enough.
After Fina’s introduction to the harsh world of the 1780s, the novel splits into three parts. In Fina’s third of the story, we see a revolution erupt as the enslaved people break free of their magical and physical restraints and seize their freedom. In France, Maximilien Robespierre rises from obscure rural lawyer to revolutionary leader who overthrows the ancien régime—with the help of a shadowy figure who promises power in exchange for “favors.” In England, William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce are taking a more gradual approach to change by trying to nudge parliament into expanding the rights of common magicians and banning the slave trade and slavery (respectively). Two of the revolutions (Haiti and France) are nightmares of fear, blood, and fire but, in contrast, Britain’s slow progress feels painfully slow.
The role of rhetoric, surprisingly enough, plays a bigger role in A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians than magic itself. The walls of the House of Commons are even enchanted to respond to particularly great oratory. Thus, there are many conversations where characters discuss how far they need to go and how they should proceed. I daresay the conversations depicted here mirror historical conversations had by their historical counterparts (you know, minus the details about magic) as they plotted their revolutions and political maneuvers. These conversations thankfully don’t bog down the narrative. Rather, they had me thinking about how far I might go to win my rights if they had been stripped away or entirely suppressed by an unjust government. The book also had me wondering what kind of magical ability I might want if I lived in Parry’s world. There are also plenty of battles—notably the storming of the Bastille—to keep things interesting.
I had a great time reading A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians and would definitely recommend it to fans of historical fantasy and alternate histories. Parry is absolutely brilliant at blending fact and fiction. The characters jump right off the page (Desmoulins is a particular favorite of mine and Wilberforce is a goddamned hero here and in actual history) as Parry brings them back to life, with the added twist of sometimes being able to do magic. Even the fact that the book ends on a cliffhanger wasn’t that much of a problem for me. I normally hate cliffhangers but this book would probably have been another 500 pages long if Parry had tried to resolve everything in one volume. I will definitely stay tuned for the next installment of Parry’s fantastical history of revolutions.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.