Hello all, and happy Tuesday! (Is that a thing?) I am very excited to review to have received this book from Netgalley and RedHook, since it is a beautiful blend of fantasy and historical fiction. I missed reading good fantasy! I had also preordered this book ages ago, and when I got the chance to review it, I was all the happier. So without further ado…
From the Publisher:
It is the Age of Enlightenment — of new and magical political movements, from the necromancer Robespierre calling for revolution in France to the weather mage Toussaint L’Ouverture leading the slaves of Haiti in their fight for freedom, to the bold new Prime Minister William Pitt weighing the legalization of magic amongst commoners in Britain and abolition throughout its colonies overseas.
But amidst all of the upheaval of the early modern world, there is an unknown force inciting all of human civilization into violent conflict. And it will require the combined efforts of revolutionaries, magicians, and abolitionists to unmask this hidden enemy before the whole world falls to darkness and chaos.
The description doesn’t really do Declaration of Rights justice, so I figured I would give a quick take here. The story is divided into three broad perspectives that don’t intersect until a little while into the book:
- In England, we follow William Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger, two friends that end up in politics as an MP and Prime Minister, respectively, who are fighting for abolition of the slave trade and against dark forces;
- In France, we follow young Robespierre, a secret necromancer and budding politician who, with his friend Camille Desmoulins, wants to bring about the French Revolution with the help of a mysterious friend in his head; and
- In Jamaica we follow Fina, a young slave who hears the call for revolt from a mysterious voice and leaves Jamaica to follow Toussaint Louverture in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
Instead of general social unrest regarding the unfairness of socioeconomic status, the unrest in France is started because commoners across the world are not allowed to use their birthright magic, and are braceleted at a young age to prevent use. The punishment for illicit use is often a terrible length of imprisonment, or death. In the Caribbean, it is a step further, with African slaves being drugged to be obedient, magicked to follow orders, and not be able to use their own magic. The kings and queens are all swollen with inbred magic, and nobles are also allowed to use freely.
The only magic that has been outlawed completely is vampirism and necromancy, which requires blood to live and comes with a nasty side effect of needing to take territory and control it wholly (ala Dracula) while challenging all other vampires. In the early kingdoms, vampires ruled France and England, and wars were fought with magic, no holds barred. All of the vampires were killed centuries ago and the Concord was signed to prevent magic from being used on the battlefield… but were they all killed? And what is preventing someone from breaking Concord and unleashing years of oppressed magic users?
There is obviously a lot going on here, so let me break it down into what worked well, and what came up short.
What I Loved:
- The characterizations & interactions. It seems impossible for an author to have such an insane amount of worldbuild and setting also be able to write good characters, but Parry did, and I think that Declaration is actually carried by its killer cast of characters and their friendships. Pitt and Wilberforce have the sort of tight knit bond that I feel isn’t often portrayed in men (probably because author Parry is a woman): they are candid and emotional to each other, and not afraid to show genuine affection. They challenge each other intellectually, and both have an overwhelming sense of duty to their country, as well as a wickedly dry sense of humor. Robespierre and Desmoulins have a similar burning desire to do the right thing by their country, and balance each other’s strengths with Robespierre’s oratory skills and calm head and Desmoulin’s fire (literally) and wicked pen. Having gotten a very different side of these characters in real life (Reign of Terror, anyone? Ireland folding into the UK?) it was so nice to see these young men as just that: Young, revolutionary young men who want what is best for their respective countries.
- The magical system: Given how insanely f***ed up France and England both were as far as colonialism and imperialism at this time, the idea that commoners are braceleted by the church in order to not use magic and are punished for even using magic to defend themselves is not hard to imagine in a magical world. The types of magic being passed down bloodlines made sense, as did the variations based on region. I loved that the kings and queens were “bred” for their magic to react to threats on the nation (see: the madness of King George III), and how the wanton use of magic by the French monarchy was a part of their downfall (coinciding with the excess of riches at the time). I thought that the insert of magic into this world was fairly seamless, easily interspersing the concept of regular oppression and economic repression.
- The history. I have a feeling I may be in the minority for enjoying the dense historical aspects of Declaration, but Parry clearly did so much research into British, French, and Caribbean history, and it shows. This is a time period that is pretty interesting to me (most of my undergraduate English degree focused on Irish troubles lit, with a lot of British influences), so I was familiar with the whole cast of characters and did not have trouble keeping up. I have a feeling that other people will have a problem with how densely historical this is, but I never felt as though Declaration was dry or like a textbook – it is just a better fit for a more educated audience. The span of time this book covers is also pretty impressive (more than a decade), and given how this ends, I feel that Parry is gearing for a sequel. A massive undertaking.
What Didn’t Work as Well:
- The heavy and lengthy political dialogues: Again, I had a great time with the historical aspects of Declaration, but the chambered politicking got to be too much for me. This was mostly in the English chapters and a little in post-Revolution France, but the pages really added up for every fiery speech and down-to-the-wire vote that occurred in Parliament and Chambers. While I appreciate you can’t show history without the discussions surrounding major political decisions, this went a little far and probably could have been summarized a bit instead of recited. Pitt, Wilberforce, and Robespierre are all thoroughly described, then shown, to be expert orators – I wish I could hear it instead of have to read it ad nauseum.
- The Caribbean. Honestly, I wanted more from the Caribbean point of view, with Fina and Louverture. There has always been a discussion as to whether white authors should write about slavery and financially gain from fictionalizing the African experience during that time, but Parry’s historical research was so thorough and her treatment in Declaration unflinching, that this didn’t seem problematic… what was more problematic was how few of the chapters Fina got to occupy. It felt as though Parry waned to include a black voice to her narrative that is overwhelmingly about abolition, but then shied away from adding too much of that voice (perhaps out of fear of telling it wrong, or being accused of exploitation). Fina as the sole main female character deserved more “page time,” as did her story in plantation Caribbean.
Declaration is not a book for everyone, but it is definitely a book for people I want to read books with (I am kidding, that was mean – but seriously this is so far up my alley Parry may as well have been in my head). Here is a book for history buffs and for fantasy heads, for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Diana Wynne Jones’ YA Chrestomanci series. While there were some problems with pacing/length, and could at times jump too quickly, the journey is worth it. Four waves out of five! Pick this beautifully covered book in one week (June 23, mark it!) at Barnes and Noble or your favorite indie shop (on discount now at Bookshope.org!) and read it on your (socially distanced) trips to the beach.