2020’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is the first volume in H. G. Parry’s Shadow Histories.
Centuries after the Vampire Wars, European monarchies agree on one thing: magic must be carefully managed, certain schools of magic banned outright, and commoners must be denied the use of any inborn magic they might have. All the nations of Europe rely on the Templars, who are given the authority and tools needed to ensure stability … regardless of the cost to lower orders.
As unpleasant as the life of a commoner can be, it would be paradise for those who fall prey to Europe’s slavers. Africans are kidnapped and transported to the New World, where they face brutal, merciless exploitation for the remainder of their lives. To ensure compliance, slaves are forced to consume an alchemical potion that renders them prisoners in their own bodies. They may be screaming in defiance internally, but they cannot disobey orders.
In the late 18th century, the aristocrats and slavers discover the limits of the oppressed’s tolerance for abuse.
Three friends vacation in France: William Pitt, ambitious lawyer and future Prime Minister, and his close friends William Wilberforce, future reformer, and Edward Eliot, future Pitt in-law and reformer as well. They carry a letter of introduction to a person they assume is high-born. They know little French and little about France1. Although their vacation does not go quite as planned, it is not without its points of interest, such as Pitt inadvertently activating an ancient entity.
Called back to England to form a government, Pitt is not unsympathetic to his friends’ reforming proclivities. But he must contend with the sad fact that the fortunes of many in the upper classes depend on slavery. Any attempt to eliminate slavery is strongly resisted.
Another character: Fina, a slave in the Caribbean. She prays for deliverance at the hands of escaped slaves, who have fled to wilderness settlements and send out raiding parties to carry off a lucky few to freedom. Her hopes are in vain. She remains a prisoner in her own body.
Back to the old world: Maximilien Robespierre, like Pitt and his friends, is a would-be reformer. Also, like Pitt, Robespierre has forbidden magical gifts he must keep hidden. When an unseen entity (the one raised by Pitt) contacts him, offering the means to realize his ambitions in exchange for favours to be explained at a later date, Robespierre is not inclined to worry overmuch about the nature of those favours.
Consequences follow: crop failures and revolution in France. Slaves in the Caribbean rise up when alchemical control of their bodies fails.
Fina, now free, can use her magic. It’s magic that can follow the lines of force that have undone oppression in France and the New World. There’s a mastermind behind all this. Fina would like to think that this is all to the good … but she senses that the mastermind has other ends than human happiness.
Others are less wary.
This review is a demonstration that not every reviewer is suited for every book.
Declaration has two elements that drive me up the wall.
One is plausibility. This is a world that is very different from ours on a fundamental level. Individuals manifest magical talents depending on vagaries of genetic inheritance; talents range from weak telekinesis to mind control that can sway minds across entire nations. This has had consequences, not least of which were the Vampire Wars a few centuries earlier, and the consequent presence of Templars2 in every European nation
The world of the novel should have been entirely different … and yet the author assumes that very different historical processes led to an 18th century similar to the one in our history texts, and that the same individuals play much the same roles they did in our 18th century.
I’m also not keen on the theme of political upheavals due to outside influences, although events in the book (and the real-world history they parallel) make it clear that the mastermind is taking advantage of existing social conflicts rather than creating them. Slaves do not enjoy being slaves and peasants in general are very cool on the idea of starving to death while aristocrats feast.
But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Points to the author for not sugar-coating slavery — for some reason, quite a lot of white spec-fic authors seem to have taken Gone With The Wind as their guide to how slaves felt about involuntary servitude — and in fact their version of slavery is slightly worse than the slavery of actual history.
The novel itself is effectively written. The characters themselves are interesting enough; Robespierre, who is generally seen as one of history’s villains thanks the whole Terror thing, is at least somewhat sympathetic as he skis down the slopes of Mount My-Intentions-Were-Good. Granted, he manages to one-up his real-world analog by using the Terror as the source of bodies for an undead army, but at least he occasionally feels a bit conflicted, even as he sends former friends to their deaths.
1: My editor complains:
the author knows nothing about England in the 18th century. Aristocrats would have learned French. French was the language of diplomacy and fashion. They would not be naïve tourists.
Robin Reilly’s William Pitt the Younger (1978) credits the historical Pitt with French “of fair fluency and a passable accent” when describing the trip that inspired this episode in the novel. As for the trio in the book, “None of them had ever been across the Channel nor spoke any French […]” Not sure why Parry made this change.
2: The presence of the Templars raises the question “was there a Reformation in this universe or did the whole business with the Vampire Kings derail that development?” On the one hand, the fact that every nation hosts Templars argues against the rise of Protestantism. On the other, there are definitely Methodists.