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.
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.