Review: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry (Little Brown UK)

HG Parry’s, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is an astounding book, and I really can’t say when I last read a novel as good as this one. I try, to the best of my ability, to only post recommendations for books I love, and I’m always writing reviews full of praise, so it might sound like this is just par for the course, but seriously: you have to read this book.

If it were only that it is meticulously researched, gorgeously characterised with real respect and affection for its subjects, drenched in elegantly realised myth and magic, and then structured and written with effortless confidence: all these would make it an instant and future classic.

But this is also one of the most timely reads possible, reimagining the past to speak directly into our troubled present, with a story rooted in the origins of slavery and the abuse of black Africans, weaving directly into current race relations and the value placed on black lives. A story about abuses of power, of suppressing the truth, of the manipulation of journalism, of the weighing of economies over lives and how politics serves the wealthy and the powerful, not just in their greed, but also in making them believe that their philosophies and world views are somehow magically correct, despite them never looking much further than their narrow clubs and parlours.

Following and reshaping the events surrounding the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and the Abolitionist movement in the Age of Enlightenment, Parry places magic as the essential element underpinning all debates of freedom, morality and what it means to be human in her alternate 18th century. It is a right afforded solely to the aristocracy in Europe, where it is everywhere else policed by the Knights Templar, inflexibly, with common folks who inherit magic being chained and controlled from birth to prohibit its use. Magic is both the very essence of privilege and the greatest taboo. Some dark magics aren’t tolerated from any class: necromancy, or vampiric blood magic. And if you’re a black African, used to seeing it used freely in your home culture, then captured and transported and sold to labour in French or English plantations, magic becomes an alchemical poison that robs you of any will, leaving you physically capable of only what you’re expressly told to do. Magic and race play back and forth to highlight how horrifically we treat our fellow humans.

The story centres on four focal characters: in England, British prime minister William Pitt the Younger and Pitt’s close friend, and fellow MP, William Wilberforce, an abolitionist and evangelist; in France, the French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre; and far from Europe, a Jamaican slave woman called Fina, who comes to play an important part in the army of Toussaint Louverture in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Through the eyes of these central figures we see the histories of the revolution in France, the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Britain, the madness of King George III, the revolt in the Caribbean, and then war in Europe as all interconnected to a shadow war being waged by an unseen figure of unique power and ambition.

Parry loves her characters, who are all rendered with warmth and respect. It is a very male dominated book, but when Fina takes centre stage, she more than holds her own, witness to incredible horror while also the vessel and focus of her black community’s ideas of love and family. She is, in some ways, the only character to gain unfettered agency, which is an extraordinarily powerful path to take. Pitt, Wilberforce and Robespierre are no less warmly drawn, especially Wilberforce, who is a genuinely good person and manages to face a host of darknesses with a faith that is considered and tested, rather than blind and meaningless for that. Pitt and Robespierre are men of incredible integrity and vision, each hiding troubling secrets they have no control over, each seeking to serve their nation. Each are led into darkness because of their convictions.

If all this history sounds dry, it is continuously shot through with miracles, battles, assassins in the night, secret rendezvous in dreamlands and buckets of humour and wit. It’s also one of the best written pieces of English I’ve ever encountered, effortlessly confident with the language of the time but also compulsively easy to read. The balance between the viewpoints is just perfect—indeed, there are sections where Pitt and Wilberforce, as focal characters, pass the narrative viewpoint between themselves so beautifully that you often miss the switch, and these scenes are so much deeper and more meaningful for the shared perspectives. The world building, laced over history, is so assured and uncannily appropriate, that one can’t imagine how these events happened in real life without the magic here to animate them.

By the end, you’re feeling every single hurt and threat in this book, like the burn of the bracelets they put on commoner magicians to stop them using magic, and dying for the next instalment.

I simply adore this book. It has echoes of Susanna Clarke and Jeanette Ng to it, and the vampire histories of Kim Newman as well. Only it’s better.

But it rings so particularly, utterly, brilliantly itself because it was a meant to be read now. Right now. This very moment in time. When it will shatter the walls you’re hiding behind and throw fireballs to light up the fears and guilts you’re facing right now.

Please, read it now. All the stars.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is published in the UK and Ireland on June 25th, and in the US on June 23rd, 2020.

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