A magical war is sweeping across Europe. At the head of France’s army is Napoleon Bonaparte, with an army of undead, the Kraken, and an ancient dragon under his control. William Pitt must manage the political aspect of this uneven war as Britain’s prime minister while battling the growing strength of his own blood magic. Pitt must master his increasingly darker desires and the effect they have on his health, and he must also battle another blood magician, a vampire who has hidden for years while nevertheless moving events in directions that suit him.
In Saint Domingue, Fina turns her attention to liberating Jamaica’s slave population, those she left behind when she escaped. But the vampire is there already, in the slave’s minds, and it may be too late to save anyone.
A Radical Act of Free Magic is the final part of H. G. Parry’s The Shadow Histories duology, a fantasy alt-history of the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery. Magic is common among the world’s population but controlled by the wealthy and elite, and the journey to end slavery is also the end of the control of magic for Commoners. My review of the first book, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, is here. It had so much promise, especially at the end, that I forgave the slow pace and the long, repetitive conversations and got stuck into A Radical Act of Free Magic.
It started strong, showing how William Pitt came into his vampiric inheritance and the extraordinary control he displayed at 14 years old in not giving in to his magic. We’re also introduced to a new character, Catherine (Kate), a Commoner mage braceleted at a young age, preventing her from using her power without great physical pain. Then we fall into the familiar pattern of the first book. Chapters start with large information dumps, bringing us up to speed with world events while focusing on the stagnating relationship between Pitt and his oldest friend Wilberforce.
My issues with this book are the same as for the first. The focus is not on the best characters (in my opinion), such as Fina and Kate. Most action events also occur off-page, so we are told about them instead of living them with the characters. However, I feel all my issues stem from the same thing: the blurb and PR information did not manage my expectations. If I am told there is an Army of the Dead, I want to see them. If the British Navy is decimated by a Kraken, I want to hear the masts splinter and taste the sea salt on my lips. I do not want to be told that Le Cap on Saint Domingue was burned because the Army of the Dead had arrived. I want to live the decision-making experience. However, I probably would have enjoyed the books more if I had been told the duology’s focus was the strains on Pitt and Wilberforce’s friendship as they abolish slavery.
And what is more frustrating for me is the final ten percent of the book where Fina meets the Kraken. Those pages sizzled with magic as Kate fights to keep their ship upright while battle mages throw spells at enemy ships and Fina hunts the Kraken with her magic. We are right there in the action, living and breathing the choices made. Without giving anything away, this section of the book touched me more than anything else in both books. It left me sad that Parry can have such beautiful, heartbreaking writing yet employs it sparingly. That isn’t to say the writing in the rest of the book is poor – it’s not; it just lacks the emotional punch I need.
But all that is a personal preference. If you loved the first, then A Radical Act of Free Magic is more of the same, a sprawling, fantastical alt-historical, where sea monsters are a standard risk of travelling on the sea, and magic can be either a blessing or a curse.