You complain that I have committed illegal acts. Of course I have. We all have. The Revolution is illegal. The fall of the Bastille was illegal. The formation of this republic was illegal—as illegal as liberty itself. Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution?
The words above are the words of the real, historical Maximilien Robespierre, and it was spoken no less passionately by his fantasy counterpart in Ms Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (an eyecatching title which is itself a play on the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen). That is what this book is, in essence. It is a fantasy imposed upon French, English, and Haitian history in the late 18th century. The singular moment which convinced me that I must read this book was when I skimmed its synopsis, and came upon the words: “the necromancer Robespierre.” Surely, there can be no stronger argument for picking this novel up?
This book is broadly broken down into three intertwining narrative threads:
- The first being the efforts in England led by William Wilberforce, Pitt the Younger, and their abolitionist allies in ending the transatlantic slave trade
- The second being the revolutionary struggles of Robespierre and Desmoulins in France
- The third following the Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) slave revolt spearheaded by Toussaint Louverture and a runaway Jamaican slave named Fina.
While magic is legal for aristocrats and royalty, the commoners of France and England (and the rest of Europe) are not allowed to exercise their inborn magical talents on pain of imprisonment. This is all set in a backdrop of a Europe that had once experienced what was called the Vampire Wars which resulted in the extermination of all vampires by the Knights Templar. Or so it was believed.
Major events occurred in the book as they had in real history, with minor tweaks involving the use of magic. In fact, it mirrored real history so precisely that halfway through the book, I started asking: if the existence of magic does not alter the course of history, what’s the point of having it in the story then? If there is anything resembling a flaw with A Declaration, it is in how predictable it is, especially if one is already familiar with the history it is recounting. Still, I can imagine readers who are learning about the French Revolution for the first time from this book would be completely swept away, if only because it is already a very compelling story on its own sans magic (and one hopes that they are able to separate fact from fantasy or they may get away with the mistaken belief that Marie Antoinette was indeed a highly accomplished fire-mage). Some of the most soul-stirring moments in A Declaration occurs when Ms Parry simply reproduced the genuine historical words or writings of her characters.
What saved A Declaration for me is the obvious charm in Ms Parry’s writing, which is downright delightful at times in how she imagines the private, unrecorded moments of these personages’ lives. There is obvious care in how she focuses on and nurtures the friendships between Pitt and Wilberforce, Robespierre and Desmoulins, and Toussaint and Fina, all of which pays huge emotional dividends by the end. It is ironic how history books often strip famous people of their humanity and reduce them to so-and-so names doing things in places at dates, while fiction (good fiction, that is) humanises them. Ms Parry is so successful in this regard that she actually moved me to tears at times even when presenting events in history I already knew—events which never held any emotional resonance to me before.
Personally, the character arcs I was most invested in are Pitt’s and Robespierre’s, and my investment actually depended on the element that Ms Parry invented—the two characters’ contrasting attitudes towards the use of magic. Book Robespierre, much like the historical Robespierre, is a principled man but he is willing to make exceptions to these principles for matters he considers to be sufficiently important or urgent. He is against capital punishment, but executes those who threatens his vision of France. He believes in individual liberty, but employs mesmerism wantonly to hijack the free will of others. Meanwhile, Pitt who shares a similar gift of mesmerism simply refuses to put it to use, even for causes he considers to be just and moral.
“You could do it yourself, you know,” Harriot said.
His smile faded. “No, I couldn’t.”
“Why not? If it’s important—”
“A lot of things are important. If I use mesmerism for one, I’ll use it for all of them.”
So, when events conspire to force Pitt into bending his principle and the pressure progressively mounts throughout the book, it is interesting to see him struggle with the moral dilemma of withholding his powers as the need for them grows. In a way, he is the reverse Spider-Man: with great power comes great restraints. Pitt will not fight crime just because he can. He would leave it to the legal authorities to do it because he trusts in the system, and would personally campaign to outlaw vigilantism. Personally, I am not sure if Toussaint’s arc is meant to represent a happy medium between Pitt and Robespierre because there simply wasn’t enough of him in the book to go on. It felt almost like an afterthought.
Another hook this book got in me is its central mystery of a shadowy figure responsible for pulling strings and catalysing upheavals in Europe and the Caribbeans like a one-person sorcerous Illuminati. I had a lot of fun trying to guess which historical celebrity this hidden Machiavellian mastermind might be, but I would have had a lot more fun if I was reading it along with a couple of friends who are equally invested. Here’s to hoping this book will become a major hit so I can enjoy theorising on potential twists and reveals with its fandom while I wait for the second book to drop next year.
Yes, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is part one of a planned duology called The Shadow Histories, and in truth, only one of the three sets of characters achieved any kind of proper ending (no prizes for guessing which). I don’t think it is a huge reach to suspect that the “duology” began its life as one fat volume which was bisected by the publisher or editor on its way to the printing press. While some may be put off by the prospect of reading half a story, this book still did an exemplary job in building up the next one. I love how it never lets up in raising its stakes, while flaunting grander and darker acts of magic on its pages. In a way, it reminded me of another fantasy series that also drew inspiration from the French Revolution: Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns, a great series which had a penultimate book that I also consider to be exemplary in how it built up expectations for the final book… only to fall short of its own hype. Like any inveterate gambler, I am always hoping that my next bet would pay off in a big way, and this time, I am putting my money on Ms Parry.
I cannot help but compare A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an excellent set of books about the Napoleonic Wars being fought using air force corps consisting of crewed dragons (which, funnily enough, also has an abolition theme). The writing styles of the two authors are very similar but Ms Novik books are more action packed and more focused on the exploits of one particular dragon and her captain in both diplomacy and warfare. Meanwhile, Ms Parry’s story gives more primacy to the machinations of politics and government (so large swathes of the book are simply extended conversations between characters, or characters addressing crowds of people) but I personally find it all equally fascinating. I would also be remiss if I do not mention Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a monumental fantasy novel which covers the Regency/Napoleonic eras as well while sharing similar themes with A Declaration on the democratisation of magic. Now, I make no secret that I am constantly on the lookout for a book, any book, that would evoke the same sense of wonderment in me that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell did 15 years ago, but A Declaration is not that book. However, it is still a very, very good book, and fans of both Temeraire and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell would find much to love in it.