City of Dark Magic tells the story of Sarah Weston, a PhD student, who journeys to Prague to catalogue and curate a selection Beethoven’s manuscripts, both personal letters and music. The logical Sarah must confront the possibility of religion, time travel, and a “hell portal” as well as the historical legacy of the Nazis and the Soviet Bloc countries on the city. Along the way, she meets a lover and becomes caught in a spy game that proves deadly for those around her. This book reads like a combination of the fantasy novel and the spy thriller. This does not prove to be happy marriage of genres, however, and City of Dark Magic doesn’t quite measure up to what it seems like it should be.
First, I want to be clear: this is not a work for young readers. In the current publishing culture, young adult fantasy is a promising commodity. And something about the cover and even the size and length of this work suggests YA. This is very much not the case, primarily because of the rather graphic sex scenes. These do not dominate the book, but are provocative and detailed enough to move the work off of the YA shelf.
There is much to recommend this book: the writing is clean and pleasant to read; the central characters are interesting because they are rather enigmatic. The city of Prague is, herself, almost like a character here. Before Sarah even leaves Boston to go to Prague, the city’s atmosphere and reputation infuse the story with a very particular atmosphere. As a fan of speculative fiction, this should be right up my alley. And yet, the whole doesn’t quite feel like what all the sum of these wonderful parts should add up to. The pacing is quick, and yet the suspense that we might expect from a spy thriller just isn’t quite there. There are hints of the supernatural around every corner, and yet the work doesn’t enchant the reader in quite the way that a good fantasy novel, with the thoughtful creation of a secondary reality, should. This may be because although the central characters are interesting enough, the secondary characters are flat, many of them almost interchangeable.
The central character, Sarah Weston, is a Beethoven scholar. Much of the text is devoted to her musings on Beethoven’s biography and music, even to her experience of the music. The love we might expect an academic to have for her field is somehow not conveyed as fully as I would have liked. In fact, many of the discussions of Beethoven feel a bit esoteric. I think that I would have preferred more enthusiasm from Sarah as well as a slightly less academic analysis of Beethoven. As it is written, we get Sarah’s inside jokes—she refers to him as LVB, for instance—without an authentic warmth. I feel like this aspect of the story is forced and not terribly authentic. In fact, there’s something slightly pretentious about it, as though the authors want us, as readers, to be impressed with their inside knowledge of composer.
In all, City of Dark Magic is entertaining enough but without any real substance. I love the idea of this novel, love the idea of combining the fantasy and spy-thriller genres in this way, but in the end something about this combination just doesn’t quite work.
Drennan Spitzer is a writer and blogger from California who now resides in New England. She writes creatively, blogs publicly, and journals privately. You can find her at http://drennanspitzer.com.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.