Okay, I always understood the French Revolution, meaning I understood why there was one, and that it got out of control because hUmAnS, but I have never before been able to hold the chronology of it in my head, or remember the various stages, or the political parties or players. And it never descended to the human level for me before, never really reached my emotions because of the ways it’s been funneled at me before. It feels sort of perverse to say that a fantasy book featuring vampires and magicians and necromancy is the thing that did it for me, but H.G. Parry is so good at this, whatever this thing is she is doing! I mean, I could be wrong about this, but even though this is an alternate history (because magic doesn’t exist . . . that we know of), I’m fairly sure that the historical events of this book follow the timeline of actual history pretty closely.
The book is set in the late 1700s, taking us from the lead-up to the French Revolution through the death of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror. We have four main characters: Robespierre himself, here a magician in hiding; William Pitt (Prime Minister of England, who is a vampire, but not the quite like you’re probably thinking) and William Wilberforce (an abolitionist and member of Parliament) in England; and an enslaved woman named Fina in Jamaica/Saint Domingue (what is now Haiti/the Dominican Republic) as the Haitian Revolution begins.
This is a very political book. We see the behind the scenes of how laws are proposed, mostly through Wilberforce’s efforts to ban the slave trade and through England’s nascent conflict with France, soon to be brought on by the start of the Revolution. We also see the birth and many birth pains of Revolutionary France, here called the French Republic of Magicians. A big issue in the book, aside from the same issues that we had in the real world, is that only nobles are allowed to practice magic, and non-nobles must register with the government and are braceleted, so as not to be able to practice. Both governments are in dire need of reform, but how best to go about it? We get two very imperfect answers. This isn’t even to mention the mess that is Jamaica and Saint Domingue, where enslaved people are not only enslaved by regular means, but by magical means as well.
Oh, and there’s also someone extremely powerful puppeting events from behind the scenes.
I’m very interested to see how this all ends, how (if) it differs from actual history, and what will end up being the main point of the story (aside from exploring history in a fun and nerdy way). I really ended up being emotionally attached to all of these characters, especially the two Williams, who develop a strong friendship that is sorely tested by events in the book. Robespierre’s terrible deeds even take on a new meaning in Parry’s hands; there were several moments that gutted me in his sections.
I very much recommend this book for a certain kind of reader. I feel like you will know if that’s you.