A fantastical adventure set in the world’s most emo city.
Illustration by Lilli Carré.
The foreign city you have not yet visited glitters in your imagination with the ghost-light of the uncanny. It floats before you, wreathed in a fairy glamour cast by travel magazines, half-remembered spy novels, and drunken stories someone’s roommate told you once at a dinner party. You see yourself strolling confidently through spice markets ablaze with color, or blithely navigating labyrinthine cobblestone streets, or flirting over a cloying Muscat with a pliant, sloe-eyed local who grows his own, say, pomegranates or whatever.
Maybe he’s a cheesemonger. Or a fishmonger. Anyway: He mongs, is the point. Sexily.
But then, one day, you finally arrive in the longed-for city, only to realize that you have brought with you the flat gray fussiness of everyday life. You can’t help it; we all exude mundanity from our pores like so much sebum. In its presence, the eagerly anticipated riot of new ideas and experiences that enticed you to the place dissolves into a prosaic succession of ghastly toilets and transportation strikes and sore feet. For this is the grim secret of travel: We ache for Wallace Stevens, but we find only, always, Rick Steves.
A growing number of novels seek to erect fanciful bulwarks against the dull logistical deluge of the real world. Their action takes place against cityscapes so steeped in shadowy, gas-lit mystique the reader practically asphyxiates. In these books, every alleyway hides danger, or sex, or the paranormal—maybe even dangerous paranormal sex. The skylines that loom in silhouette on their dust jackets belong to a mythic past devoid of construction cranes and preservation scaffolding; in their pages, history isn’t something found on a plaque erected by the tourist board, it permeates the very air like a heady, sickly-sweet perfume. To read these novels is to finally and happily tread the literally magical streets of cities that will only ever exist in our naïve imaginings.
The officious yet sinister London of China Mieville, Neal Gaiman, Jonathan Barnes, and Mark Hodder; the tense, swollen Istanbul of Ian McDonald; Emma Bull’s faerie-haunted Minneapolis, Rob Thurman’s monstrous New York City, Laurell K. Hamilton’s matter-of-factly supernatural St. Louis: None of them exist, yet all of them are real. To this almanac add the Prague of City of Dark Magic, by Magnus Flyte.
Or rather, “Magnus Flyte.” Because like the titular Prague in which he sets his tale—a campily doom-shrouded city perched, we are told, at the thin threshold separating capital-G Good from capitals-U-and-E Unspeakable Evil—Magnus Flyte doesn’t exist. He’s the pseudonym of novelist Meg Howrey (Blind Sight, The Cranes Dance) and television writer Christina Lynch (Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and, most crucially, the 2004 reunion special Growing Pains: The Return of the Seavers).
Sarah, the novel’s hero, is a brilliant and beautiful music student who finds herself drawn into the requisite web of intrigue when she receives the customary mysterious invitation—in this case, to spend the summer archiving Beethoven’s personal papers for a noble Prague family’s soon-to-open museum.
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.