Ask me right now who my favourite author is, it’s HG Parry. And, A Radical Act of Free Magic is my favourite book.
It’s probably the closeness of just finishing, and I’ll probably qualify the feeling later, but today: no book beats this one.
I can’t remember when a pair of books brought me as rich a reading experience, characters I cared about as much, or just this much joy.
The Shadow History duology—which began with last year’s, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (reviewed here)—is a pitch-perfect mix of magic and history, grounded in spotless research into the era, a canny eye for how to mix in a fantastic magic system, and a passion to speak about race, gender, colonial abuses and redress, all of which lifts this epic work from merely clever to genuinely inspiring.
Picking up from the end of Robespierre’s story in book one, this second half of Pitt’s war with his vampiric enemy (a classification of the events herein that I choose deliberately, as it becomes a point of division as the story unfolds) brings Napoleon onto the field, and finally gives full focus to the story of Fina and the Haitian Revolution, which had only been lightly touched upon in the previous book.
Napoleon is rendered incredibly well, as self-possessed and ambitious as you’d expect, but not the butt of any joke, in a way that he could easily have been. There is an ironic air to how his story is handled, but the emperor-in-waiting’s alliance with the enemy is a much more complex and interesting relationship than the one the enemy had with Robespierre: here, ideals are set aside in favour of a truly toothsome game of chess that continuously revitalises them both.
Pitt and Wilberforce, by contrast, are older, wearier, less idealistic versions of the men in the first book, at odds with each other and themselves because of what life has cost them both in terms of their ideals. New foes and forces at home complicate their relationship further, but if book one was about Pitt and Wilberforce’s history and Robespierre’s life, book two attends to the English protagonists’ lives at last, and not just their lives in politics.
But it is Fina’s move to centre-stage that really puts this book a step ahead of book one. Where the male characters juggle their ideals like thought experiments—mostly at a distance from the consequeces of their warcrafts—Fina is living hers. Her struggle with Toussaint and the enemy is more immediate, and if the true battlefield of this history is in the mind, she’s a front line soldier.
The whole book is heftier, more muscular, more dynamic, though it gives itself a measured opening to get into gear. The war of magic is properly messy and global, with more context for the abuses it exposes. The side stories we’re given here, of ordinary lives with magic, deepen our connection to those who’ve had their freedoms denied them, and this book is a little more human than the first for that. But the shadow war remains the driving force and its resolution is so assured and ‘right’, it’ll make you cheer and ache.
I loved this stunning book, above (currently) all others. Together, the duology is a masterpiece, at least to me. I am so grateful to Parry and her publisher for sharing it with me, and cannot recommend it enough.