A fantastical adventure set in the world’s most emo city.
There, she will encounter a romantic interest whose nose will be dependably aquiline. She will stumble dutifully through secret passages in Prague Castle. She will uncover a deadly conspiracy that involves the CIA, the cursed Crown Jewels of Bohemia, a drug that grants extrasensory (well, extra-temporal, technically) powers, and a wise-cracking, possibly immortal dwarf so clearly written to be played by Peter Dinklage in the movie you expect to see shout-outs to his agent and manager in the acknowledgements.
If the relentless tidal churn of the book’s plotting flattens characters into broad types and serves to keep their motivations fuzzy from scene to scene, such that they do things we don’t understand for reasons we can’t reliably guess, well—that’s sort of the point. We enter into a book like this the same way we enter into a foreign city for the first time, hoping to get swept up. Thus, we don’t merely forgive a certain amount of authorial misdirection—we demand it. We long to surrender control and find ourselves beguiled, led by our stubbornly nonaquilinear noses through sudden twists and surprising reveals.
And while we’re at it, we want a larger-than-life villain deserving of our hatred; a broad, stereotypical antagonist is perfectly fine with us, thank you very much, as long as it’s someone who’s well and truly hiss-worthy. Happily, Howrey and Lynch’s villain is a hilariously venal and manipulative female U.S. senator just a few heartbeats away from the presidency, whom they depict with great relish if less-than-great subtlety. (“She took a calming moment to visualize the entire Arab world as a giant parking lot. Lovely.”)
Over the course of nearly 450 pages, the book’s steady accretion of MacGuffins (Wait, we think, we’re searching for a key now? Weren’t we just looking for a crystal vial like, three pages ago?) serves to leach from its prose the nimbleness that marks its promising early chapters. But even as the narrative detritus of keys, vials, cloaks, letters, journals and copper noses (long story) piles up, there is always their Prague—which is to say, “Prague”: a glowering, haunted, sexually charged city, its every spire, archway, side street and dungeon captured not accurately but perfectly.
Because of course the real work of the urban fantasist is to evoke the urban but live in the fantastic. There is a city beneath and beyond this city, they say to us, a surreal, ur-real existence that operates not on bus timetables and bank hours but on the emotional logic of the subconscious.
In these imaginary cities, writers avail themselves of myths and symbols to explore and expose the City—the perverse human impulse to crowd together despite our hard-wired hunger for privacy. They find and delineate the components that make up a given city’s collective, yet distinct and idiosyncratic, personality. And thankfully, in the process, they make a lot of crazy shit happen.
Photo by Travis Tanner.
Let that be our metric, then, and let’s stipulate that Howrey and Lynch have succeeded in capturing the essence of the world’s most gloriously emo city. Despite its often kludgy plot mechanics, the Prague of City of Dark Magic never fails to shimmer exotically, erotically, on the page. And that’s all to the good, because the appeal of this particular breed of urban fantasy lies in its dark, insinuating mood. In these books, at least, a palpable sense of mystery matters a hell of a lot more than a mystery that makes sense.
City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte. Penguin.
Glen Weldon is the author of the cultural history Superman: The Unauthorized Biography and reviews books, comics and the occasional movie for NPR.org. He is a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Atlantic and many other publications. He is at work on a book about the rise of geek culture (and Batman's role in it) for Simon and Schuster.