Some books are pure entertainment, and this novel is just that. Even the author’s pseudonym, Magnus Flyte, indicates the fun that awaits readers – a magic-infused adventure written by a collaborative duo who don’t take themselves too seriously. Their humor combined with history about Prague (where the story takes place) and enticing details about Beethoven’s work and life (the expertise of the protagonist) make this novel much more than a whimsical ride. I’m not one to read much fantasy-imbued literature (it’s difficult for me to surrender to it), but this one kept me turning the pages — City of Dark Magic is fast-paced, historically rich, tartly humorous, clever, completely improbable and yet believable within its context of murder and supernatural mayhem.
Getting into trouble with her sensitive nose, overactive libido and inquiring mind is protagonist Sarah Weston, a Harvard doctoral candidate in musicology who accepts a summer assignment in Prague to curate a noble family’s collection of Beethoven’s manuscripts, letters and other documents. Their museum at Prague Castle is preparing for its grand opening at summer’s end to display the centuries-old family treasures regained from the thievery of the Nazis and communists. Sarah gets involved romantically and as a fellow sleuth with Max, the American heir to the collection. He’s connected through his mother to a princely Bohemian heritage, and he’s responsible for reassembling his family’s lost fortune. It appears he’s being undermined by his distant Italian cousin, who believes she is the rightful heir to such responsibility.
The story flies past, engaging us with a multitude of threats to the collection and the people connected to it. A cast of colorful characters keeps Sarah and us guessing to what’s going on with the collection, including a 400-year-old dwarf who protects Max and Sarah, a conniving U.S. senator seeking to destroy self-incriminating letters hidden in the museum and quirky academics working on treasures, from weapons to Delft blue china.
A hallucinogenic drug adds an element of time travel to this fun read, allowing its taker to observe the past, similar to Scrooge on his time travels with Marley’s ghost. This gives Sarah a chance to experience Beethoven close-up. More seriously, she gets caught up in Max’s need to find the formula for this past-enhancing drug. Meanwhile, academics are turning up dead, and Sarah becomes a modern-day Nancy Drew in pursuit of the truth.
The story verges close to over populating itself with sub-plots and clues; and yet, Magnus Flyte pulls it off by flawlessly keeping us focused, never confused, on the questions immediately before Sarah as the pages turn – Will the senator be revealed for her crimes? Is the Italian cousin killing people? Are the dwarf and Max to be trusted? And who indeed is Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved? We’re taken through winding tunnels beneath Prague Castle, invited into secret rooms and guided through Prague’s historical monuments and locations, such as St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square, all made easy to follow by a map inside the front cover.
The mysteries collide into a satisfying conclusion at summer’s end with the museum’s gala opening. Magnus Flyte does a nice job of tying up loose ends in the final pages and also creates an opening for more adventures in Prague, should Sarah choose to say yes.
One more thing to commend Mr. Flyte on – memorable narrative moments, such as this one, about Sarah playing the opening of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique:
“She played on, finding solace, courage, fortitude, and a kindred spirit in a piece of music written in 1830, a series of notes scrawled on the page that sprang from the imagination of one man, who was reaching out across time, through this violin, to tell her that he knew exactly how she was feeling, how strange and frightening and intoxicating life could be.”