Prague is a city stuck in time. Even with the surrounding suburbs filled with modern housing and giant radio towers, the city center seems unchanged since the Middle Ages. It’s aptly called the city of spires because of all the gothic towers that fill its skyline, and it was once the seat of a powerful empire. But now it’s a gateway to the past, which makes it a perfect place for a murder mystery.
While City Of Dark Magic follows the typical contours of a crime thriller, its flourishes make it more than a simple whodunit. Sarah Weston is a Boston graduate student whose mentor dies mysteriously while curating a new collection of Beethoven’s works. Flown to Prague to replace him, Weston begins a torrid affair with a prince, starts doping on hallucinogens that make her see the past, and pals around with a 400-year-old dwarf. Throughout this myriad of crazy characters and acid trips, Sarah is ostensibly searching for her teacher’s killer, as well as the culprit behind other murders that keep popping up. The result is a ramshackle read: funny and clever, but so stuffed with ideas that it inevitably flies off the rails.
Dark Magic’s problem isn’t that any of its particular plot threads are uninteresting or superfluous; there’s just too much going on. Many short scenes could support their own novels. (Sarah’s interaction with Beethoven as they both take the same drug at different points in time is a perfect example.) Most of the book’s interesting moments or ideas are lost as it moves onto something equally alluring, from Prague being a portal to hell to the murky backstory of Magnus Flyte, the book’s author.
Flyte is the nom de plume of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, something akin to a Lemony Snicket for grownups. A fake author identity with a convoluted history can be effective (Daniel Handler has been having fun with his Snicket character for years), but Howrey and Lynch don’t do anything with their disguise. Flyte has no impact on the story; he’s simply another interesting character whom readers never really get to know. The same could be said for Prague, which is adequately described, but never really feels lived-in by Sarah or her dashing prince.
When Howrey and Lynch do stop for a moment to take a breath, City Of Dark Magic really shines. They’ve obviously done their homework, and conversations describing Beethoven’s final days or Tycho Brahe’s mysticism are informative and compelling. There’s a little bit of mumbo-jumbo involving glial cells and dark matter, but the sturdy history helps prop up the pseudoscience. Sarah is a Beethoven expert, and the authors’ examination of an academic who loves her subject rings true. It’s just too bad Sarah’s intellectual interests get brushed aside for the half-dozen other cool things Howrey and Lynch came up with.
Since City Of Dark Magic throws so many balls into the air as it goes along, it’s unsurprising the book can’t catch them all when wrapping up the story. The denouement feels rushed as Howrey and Lynch scramble to tie up as many plot points as they can, and the last few pages are hasty instead of thrilling. Even still, they find time to lay groundwork for a sequel. City Of Dark Magic is compelling enough that a follow-up sounds intriguing, but only if Magnus Flyte and his creators focus on a few of their great ideas at a time, instead of cramming them all into one story.