Format: Paperback, 464 pages
Cosmically fast-paced and wildly imaginative, this debut novel is a perfect potion of magic and suspense
Once a city of enormous wealth and culture, Prague was home to emperors, alchemists, astronomers, and, as it’s whispered, hell portals. When music student Sarah Weston lands a summer job at Prague Castle cataloging Beethoven’s manuscripts, she has no idea how dangerous her life is about to become. Prague is a threshold, Sarah is warned, and it is steeped in blood.
Soon after Sarah arrives, strange things begin to happen. She learns that her mentor, who was working at the castle, may not have committed suicide after all. Could his cryptic notes be warnings? As Sarah parses his clues about Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” she manages to get arrested, to have tantric sex in a public fountain, and to discover a time-warping drug. She also catches the attention of a four-hundred-year-old dwarf, the handsome Prince Max, and a powerful U.S. senator with secrets she will do anything to hide.
City of Dark Magic could be called a rom-com paranormal suspense novel—or it could simply be called one of the most entertaining novels of the year.
My review is based on an ARC I got from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
This is NOT a YA read! (Though I know a book being labeled 'adult' never stopped me in my later teens... I just needed to point that out.)
Review (no spoilers):
Where do I start? This book was a fun, crazy mixture of history, magic, alchemy, science, passion, and mystery. I didn’t really know what I was in for when I started reading it, but I soon found myself sucked into the story, drawn into the web of secrets hidden in the Lobkowicz palace in Prague. My review cannot possibly touch on all the important points but I hope it can provide some more info about what to expect. Honestly, I don’t quite know how to review this book because it wasn’t exactly… normal. And I mean this in a good way!
The novel is written in third person, mostly from Sarah Weston’s point of view. Sarah is a talented musicology student but she’s not your typical academic. She’s quite down-to-earth, partly because she’s not exactly from a wealthy background. She knows what she wants and who she wants and she goes after that without being ashamed. Right along with her mentor, she’s obsessed by Beethoven, so of course she jumps at the chance to spend the summer in Prague to help prepare an exhibition of Beethoven manuscripts in a soon-to-open museum. When she gets the news that her mentor, on whose behalf she was called there, has jumped from a window, she is determined to figure out what really happened because she doesn’t really believe in his suicide.
As soon as Sarah enters Prague (actually even before), the city is set up as a place of mystery, of blood and secrets. And Prague truly does have violent past – religious controversies, the Thirty Years War, the Nazis, the Communists… take your pick. Also, the city might be threshold to another world. All in all, there are layers upon layers of culture and history. Since I love both of those things and have always been fascinated by alchemy, I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel.
Another thing I really liked was the characters. I think there wasn’t a single person I’d consider ‘normal’ in the whole novel – that doesn’t mean I didn’t empathize and identify with them, though! The other academics at the palace were a crazy bunch and made me laugh out loud all the time. I was also constantly evaluating all they said and did to figure out who is on which side. Because are there ever so many sides… everyone at this palace is looking for something, and they are ready to take a lot of risks to get it.
So who is Sarah up against? Well, one of the most powerful senators of the US, for one. Charlotte Yates was a villain I loved to hate. Manipulative. Hypocritical. Ruthless when it comes to keeping her secrets. And yet also sentimental. You might say she was a bit overdone, but so were all the characters in a way. One of the great things about this book is that it never takes itself too seriously. I mean it doesn’t treat its subject in an off-handed way, but there’s a humorous kind of self-aware, postmodern-ish irony that permeates pretty much everything and that makes certain parts stand out even more by its sudden absence.
Another character I really liked was Prince Max, who didn’t really want to be a prince (he’d rather have stayed in California as the drummer of a rock band) but had to step in after his father’s death. I liked him and Sarah as a team and couple, even though I was aware he wasn’t to be fully trusted, and so was Sarah. I liked how they went with each other’s cup of crazy. Their encounters were often hilarious, as well as passionate. (Yes, there is sex. They’re also arrested because of it at one point. It’s not all too graphic though.)
Speaking of characters, it’s impossible to overlook Nicolas Pertusato, ‘the dwarf’. He’s a very slippery and elusive character. He shows up everywhere and apparently knows everything. I was very mistrustful of him at the beginning but I grew to like him over the course of the book.
Polly, a blind child-prodigy Sarah is in a strange student-teacher relationship with (who takes what role is not quite clear) was another one of my faves. She may not be able to see, but her other senses were superior instead and she was even something of a prophetess in addition to being a pre-teen composer and pianist/violinist. Generally I guess you could also call this a novel about the senses and perception, and about people gifted with an extraordinary amount of that in certain areas.
It’s impossible to discuss City of Dark Magic without speaking of music, and of LVB – Ludwig van Beethoven. He's a red thread connecting everything in the novel, and a perfect example of how the authors (yes, Magnus Flyte is the pseudonym for a collaboration) mix the High with the Low, often for comedic effects but also for realism. We see his letters, and through Sarah we glimpse his passion for music, his persistence to compose despite bad hearing and bad health. Through him, we are also introduced to the strange drug mentioned in the book description. I don’t want to go too much into what exactly it does but I was really fascinated by the parts in the book where it appeared! It’s the link between the music part and the alchemy/science/mystery part of the novel, and I don’t know if the word ‘drug’ is really appropriate. It sounds as if it was about a cheap high, but it’s really not. It’s about altering perception.
If my review seems a bit rambly and all over the place that is in part because the book is very long (over 400 pages) and because it shifts directions quite a lot. The plot expands, unrelated things end up being related and vice versa. Roles shift. What seemed stable actually isn’t. Details become important. The distance between real and imaginary, past and present, is blurred. Suspicions turn out to be misleading. I wasn’t surprised by all the twists in the plot, but most things I didn’t see coming or had pieced together wrongly. I read this spaced out over a week or so (I was reading something else parallelly and I was busy) so I’m not sure I can talk about pace, but I was never bored and usually found it hard to put my phone (I only have a kindle app) aside.
My final verdict? I loved it (it’s among my faves of the year), but I can see that it might not be for everyone. You may dislike the humor/irony, or the big mixture of things all thrown together like this. That isn’t to say the novel is a mess – there was an overall plot arch, in my opinion, and things were resolved in the end. If you dislike history, this might not be for you, even though the novel treats it in a very irreverent kind of way. But if you’re up for something unique and magical without paranormal bits and are ready just go with it, you’re in for one hell of a ride!
Have you read City of Dark Magic or is it on your TBR? Is my review even... comprehensible? I really had trouble getting my thoughts about it into words. Does it sound like something you guys might enjoy?