It is the Age of Enlightenment, yet, people are still separated by those who have and those who don’t. The wealthy magicians sit at the top and keep the right to use magic for themselves. The magical poor are registered, banned from using their power, and severely punished for stepping out of line. William Pitt the Younger and his friend, William Wilburforce, want to change that. People cannot help the power they are born with or the social caste they are born into; why should they be punished for things they can’t control. Robespierre of France believes the same thing and strives to free magicians from metal bracelets that burn the wielder if they use their power. They might want the same thing, but the two men have different approaches that will bring France and Great Britain to the brink of war, something that pleases a dark presence watching all from the shadows.
I have to start by saying this is a long book. As it spans the years from 1779 to 1794, with two sections that are not dated, a lot of actual and alternate history is covered. Pitt and Wilburforce want to end slavery and change magicians’ rights, and their progress is slow going. Most chapters contain an info dump at the beginning where the reader is brought up-to-date with the events that have occurred off-page. This, combined with the formal style of writing, made reading hard going.
There was also a lot of dialogue. Parry has made a great effort to make her work feel of the period, something I appreciated. The downside was that a character could speak for a couple of paragraphs and not say much, which sums up how I felt about the whole book. There were lots of chapters, lots of historical figures, lots of conversation, but in terms of action, there was very little.
The story is split into three main strands, with some minor characters having their own chapters. The first, and most prominent character, is William Pitt the Younger. The reader observes his progress from a 14-year-old boy watching his father in Parliament to the Prime Minister trying to steer Great Britain through the political upheaval of the French Revolution, a burgeoning war on the continent, and the abolition of slavery. Much of what he does is contained in late-night conversations with his friend William Wilburforce. However, when we do see him in action, either physically or in debate, he is a powerful character with strong morals.
The second strand is Maximilien Robespierre and his involvement in the French Revolution. His narrative contains much more in the way of action, as he is instrumental in the build-up to the Revolution and the reorganisation of France afterwards. He has pure motivations, wanting to help magicians use their power freely regardless of the social caste they were born in. However, his benefactor has grander plans in mind, which Robespierre overlooks as long as he achieves his goal. I found his arc compelling as his character development is more pronounced. Pitt’s is much more subtle, not really happening until the book’s final quarter when things are at their worst.
The third strand is the most underused. As a young girl, Fina is stolen from her home, forced to drink a substance that makes her malleable and controllable, making her the perfect slave. She is controlled by a privileged white man with minimal magic and forced to work all day on the land. The greatest horror, which becomes her greatest strength, is that her mind is still her own. She is aware of her crippling pain from bending in the fields all day but cannot straighten her back to relieve it without her owner’s permission, but she cannot speak to ask. Her chapters are so few and far between, you can almost forget they exist until she resurfaces, and yet her chapters are the freshest. I wanted more of Fina’s determination and struggle against her captivity and less of men talking about things they wanted to do but couldn’t because of bureaucracy.
Yet, despite all the long passages that say very little and characters complaining about their inactivity, the final quarter of the book was gripping. The dark turns and revelations, the events forcing the characters to develop, Pitt in particular, made me want more. I just wish I hadn’t needed to read nearly twenty years of history to get there.
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming