Writing duo Magnus Flyte (composed of authors Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch) didn’t wait long to send their protagonist on another life-altering quest. Where 2012’s City of Dark Magic took Sarah to the historical underbelly of Prague, City of Lost Dreams places her among the gossiping crowds of Vienna, where modern science turns out to be just as wacky as all those Renaissance alchemists she’d encountered last time.
Sarah returns to the Old World with just one thing in mind: to find a cure for her friend, the young piano prodigy, Pollina. She’s not seeking immortality, per se, but altering the course of death is never a narrow path. In a haze of science, magic, history, and art, Sarah must muddle her way through the desires of centuries of others like her, who cannot accept that time will someday stop moving.
Sarah, along with her ex-boyfriend Prince Max and the immortal dwarf Nico, are all seeking help for Pollina in their own ways, no matter how selfish their ulterior motives (Nico, like any good immortal, just wants to figure out a way to die). Dr. Bettina Müller in Vienna seems to have found the cure for the rare disease that is ailing Pollina, but the nanobiologist is caught up in some kind of scandal. She disappears after her first meeting with Sarah, and starts to send her cryptic messages and bizarre tasks. Sarah, willing to do anything at all to help Pollina, finds herself carting around stolen art, accidentally inhaling centuries-old, mind-boggling drugs, and spying on Vienna’s elites to find our who stole Dr. Müller’s laptop. Things get even weirder when people start walking out of their historical moments and into the present. Sarah thought her adventures from her trip in Prague had ended, but it turns out that the quest for the golden fleece (yes, that golden fleece) is still in full-gear, and seeking a cure for her friend has placed her yet again in the heart of it.
When I first heard about the release of a sequel to the fabulous City of Dark Magic, I was dubious about how worthwhile it might be. The former novel hadn’t exactly tied up loose ends—the team of protagonists obviously never find the golden fleece they had been seeking—but that worked for me. Flyte made it quite clear that people go mad seeking the fleece and that folks in the modern era should learn from the mistakes of history. The prospect of this quest making a comeback made me suspicious of the characters’ motivations before I even opened the first page.
For the most part, these suspicions played out; City of Lost Dreams reads very much like your typical sequel. The character development from the first novel is all but erased as Sarah continues to delude herself that empirical and scientific evidence can trump the weird, nebulous world of history. The romance is equally frustrating. Sarah and Max broke up somewhere in the hazy between-books-timeline, and will now reenact their coming-together when they meet again for the first time since the break-up. This, of course, allows Sarah to sleep with at least one new character before her and Max’s reunion—but the sex in the novel is so played down compared to its prequel, I couldn’t help but feel cheated. Sex in a stable just doesn’t live up to the defacement of a priceless historical artifact.
Lost Dream’s engagement with history is similarly weak by comparison, consigning itself mostly to the pre-modern era. The Nazi plots and contemporary political intrigue are erased in the case of the former and weakened in the case of the latter. While this simplification of timelines and narrative threads certainly made the novel more straightforward than its predecessor, it lost much of the thematic nuance that I had found so intriguing. I wondered, as I was reading it, if perhaps I had misread Dark Magic and had given it more credit than it deserved; however since most of my complaints about its sequel stem from a comparison of the two, I find that I’m still happy to defend the former.
All of this is not to say that I didn’t find Lost Dreams to be an enjoyable read. The Magnus Flyte duo know how to write a page-turner. Sarah remains a flawed but engaging protagonist, who is smarter than your average hero, but emotionally stunted in a way that is at times frustrating and at times endearing. Harriet, Sarah’s new “rival” for Max, is a wonderful and unique character who I found distressingly relatable. Harriet is so singularly obsessed with experiencing “true” history, that she becomes addicted to a drug (westonia) that allows her to experience all of time at once. She is offered, of course, as a foil to Sarah, who desires the drug but ultimately resists it. However, she is treated graciously and sympathetically, and never once do the two women fight over Max. Another new female character—Renaissance poet Elizabeth Jane Weston—also makes an appearance as a compelling, and nuanced antagonist. If nothing else, Lost Dreams is absolutely swimming in badass female leads, including Pollina, the wise (and wise-ass) child prodigy around whom the action of the novel takes place.
I’ve seen a few reviews for the novel floating around that claim not to have read Dark Magic before engaging with the sequel, and this is not something I’d recommend. Lost Dreams does not work as a stand-alone novel. If you liked Dark Magic, however, you’ll likely enjoy this follow-up romp in Vienna. Magnus Flyte hasn’t failed yet to make me want to travel, if not to old Europe, than to the tumultuous pages of history. Despite Lost Dreams’ flaws, I’m glad to have dipped my toes once more into Sarah’s world.
City of Lost Dreams is available now from Viking Penguin.
Emily Nordling is a grad student in Chicago, IL, where she lives most of her adventures vicariously through books.