A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry
H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (2020) is a sweeping fantasy novel that takes major events during the Age of Enlightenment — the French Revolution, the Haitian slave revolution, and the madness of King George — and overlays them with a skein of magic, investing the three major players with various powers: France’s Robespierre is a necromancer, Britain’s Prime Minister William Pitt is a mesmerist (among other things), and Toussaint Louverture is a weather mage (albeit a weak one, the focus in Haiti is really on a more powerful woman named Fina). The three, though, are actually dancing to the tune set by an immensely powerful and mysterious figure manipulating things to his own intended goal, which threatens ruin and destruction not seen for centuries. The concept has some potential, and occasionally that potential is met (particularly toward the end stages). Unfortunately, though, the concept’s mixed execution wasn’t enough to overcome issues of pace and character.
My first issue is that if one is going to introduce magic into the real world, I need to feel it’s truly an embedded magic in that reality and also that its addition is, well, an addition. Here I never quite felt either. The magic in this alternate Enlightenment feels a bit muddy or inchoate. I was never quite sure of its prevalence among the population, its abilities or limitations, or how it’s been working in the society at large. We see characters employing magic, and we see its effects certainly, but it feels somewhat random and more of a plot device than a natural part of this world. In related fashion, I was never quite sure what I was gaining with the addition of magic. The French Revolution, L’ourverture’s revolution — these are compelling, moving, dramatic stories on their own and their events have been related in both fiction and non-fiction in enthralling fashion. “It’s A Tale of Two Cities but with magic” isn’t quite enough. Not on its own at least.
I also had a problem with pacing, which to be honest felt more than a little plodding through the first three-quarters of A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, which felt all of its near-600 pages and a bit more. Somewhat ironically, I did want more time with Fina in Haiti, whose story felt like it was given short shrift until the end. But I’d achieve that extra time not with more pages but by streamlining the book by about 100-150 pages and rebalancing the POVs, reducing the European leaders’ and giving that extra time to Fina. The pacing also wasn’t helped by the reliance on telling (via dialog) rather than showing nor by the relatively mundane style.
Characterization was hit and miss for me. The villain is the weakest point — more shadow than character and until the very end portrayed as “evil because he’s evil.” Fina should have been a much more captivating figure, but between the few pages we spend with her and the character’s passivity, she doesn’t really compel. Pitt is interesting in how he weighs the ethical and pragmatic concerns of protecting England, abolishing the slave trade, avoiding greater bloodshed, and restricting his own use of magic, but as a character he’s distant and more than a little cool, so he is more interesting than engaging. Robespierre, until the near end, feels like a missed opportunity. A man of truly honorable goals chased with deep compassion and conviction who finds himself overwhelmed by events and by his own fears/insecurities, he should have been a much more vitally fascinating character, that sort of “can’t look away” evil of “the ends justify the means.” There are hints throughout, but it’s only at the end I felt he came into his own potential as a gripping character psychologically. The same holds true for his best friend, Camille Desmoulins, who realizes the Terror has gone too far in its methods, and I wish we could have spent more time in both the realization and the changing relationship between the two men. As it is, it makes for several strong scenes, but they feel a little rushed and made me think of what could have been. My favorite character, and I think the one most richly, fully drawn, is Wilberforce, Pitt’s closest friend and a staunch abolitionist who works tirelessly to end the slave trade, even when, toward the novel’s end, it puts him on the opposite side of Pitt. Wilberforce is a thoughtful, moral man full of self-doubt, but laser focused, and the two men’s warm relationship is one of the strongest aspects of the novel, perhaps the strongest.
A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians was a difficult novel for me to persevere through. I put it down multiple times (never a good sign for me as I prefer to read books through in one or two sittings), never picked it up with what I’d call eager anticipation, and the last few times I questioned whether I’d finish it or not. I did obviously, and I will say its best pages are its last 50 or so. Whether that’s enough to entice me into picking up the sequel I’m not sure yet, but it does mean I can’t quite recommend the story yet until I (maybe) see how that second book goes.