Sarah Weston is a PhD student in musicology. Her specialty is neuromusicology – the interaction of music and the human brain – with a particular focus on the works of Beethoven. She receives an invitation from Lobkowicz Palace in Prague to spend the summer cataloging and organizing a vast trove of manuscripts written by the master himself. The seventh prince had been one of Beethoven’s primary patrons, so these papers are of major scholarly significance.
Any thought that this would merely be an academic undertaking soon disappears, however. It starts with the death of Sarah’s mentor – a supposed suicide that doesn’t quite add up. Before long, Sarah finds herself swept up into a world of intrigue that is difficult to understand – and to believe.
There’s the current recognized Lobkowicz heir, an American named Max who may have once been a rock and roll drummer and who is currently at odds with the woman at the head of the Italian branch of the family. There’s an oddly brilliant dwarf by the name of Nicolas and a gaggle of goofy academics, each of whom is bound by his or her own hyper-specialization. There’s a powerful US Senator with plenty to hide and an 11-year-old blind musical prodigy.
Oh, and there’s time travel (maybe?) and secret agents and a whole lot of Beethoven.
Clearly, there’s a lot going on in “City of Dark Magic” – perhaps a little too much. While Sarah Weston is a fairly well-realized character, her surrounding cast (with one or two exceptions) is just a bit too vast and varied to allow for much in the way of real development. That’s not to say that the dramatis personae aren’t interesting – they certainly are – but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of growth. That said, there’s not much of nuance required for most of them; it’s Sarah’s show after all. But perhaps slightly fewer bodies to keep track of might have eased the narrative flow.
Flyte’s Prague is a vividly realized wonderland, a place whose foreignness is only magnified by the mysterious goings-on. It’s the perfect backdrop for a story such as this one, a tale that bounces from quirky fantasy to spy thriller and back again. This dichotomy might seem odd, but it mostly seems to work – both aspects of the juxtaposition are engaging on their own.
Is this duality a result of the shared authorship? Hard to say; coauthored works such as this one are always suspect - there’s always a risk of dissonance in style and/or tone between the writers. But while the story is constantly shifting, it does so with a sense of fluidity. It should be jarring, but it rarely feels that way.
Also at issue: the rapidity of the endgame seems a bit rushed after the leisurely pace at which the rest of the story unfolds. While that upshift in speed is understandable, it sacrifices some of the power of that lovely build-up. The occasional sex scenes also come off as a bit superfluous.
Still, these are relatively minor issues. “City of Dark Magic” is a genre mash-up that supersedes its assorted parts. It is a fiction filled with intriguing notions set against one of the grandest of European cities. Centuries-old conspiracies blend with local lore, political power-mongering and classical music history into an eminently readable mélange. Here’s hoping there’s more to come from Magnus Flyte.