I was sold on newcomer Magnus Flyte’s recent novel when I looked at the clock and realized that I’d been reading for four hours without pause. Ironically, City of Dark Magic dedicates itself to time travel, and, what’s more, Magnus Flyte is actually a composite pseudonym for author Meg Howrey, and television writer and journalist Christina Lynch. If there’s anything this novel taught me, it’s that two people can be one and that present time is all the time.
If you’re not sold on that description, here’s one from the back cover of the novel: “Rom-com paranormal suspense novel.” When music student Sarah Weston is called to Prague to study dusty Beethoven manuscripts and instead discovers political intrigue, love, and time-bending hallucinogens, Flyte’s readers are left with their own discovery: meta-fiction can be fun and rom-coms can, indeed, be smart, sexy, and self-aware.
Sarah Weston does, it turns out, spend a portion of the novel studying dusty Beethoven manuscripts. Upon the supposed suicide of her friend and mentor, Dr. Absalom Sherbatsky, Sarah takes over his work at Prague Castle’s upcoming collection of royal treasures. Prince Maximilian Lobkowitz Anderson, the current heir, has at last retrieved his family’s possessions from the time of communist upheaval and, before that, Nazi takeover. The Lobkowitz stronghold now overfloweth with historical artifacts and an ensemble cast of ecstatic, eclectic academics. Even before Sarah begins to suspect that Sherbatsky might have been murdered—throwing her into her role as “Renaissance Nancy Drew”—her surroundings are in a state of contemporary and historical chaos.
Upon investigation, Sarah finds that Sherbatsky had been high in more than one manner when he threw himself from a castle window to his death. And, when undertaking Beethoven (alternatively, LVB or Luigi)-related research in a seemingly deserted library at Nelahozeves, she finds that Prince Max might be partaking in recreational drug use himself. When, after apologizing for his attempts to extinguish invisible flames on Sarah’s body, the two find a dead body on the grounds of the castle, an alliance is inevitably, though tentatively, formed. Not until Sarah makes the bold, if stupid decision, to eat the thing-that-looks-like-a-toenail left to her by Sherbatsky, does she realize that the drug that's all the rage in Prague Castle is not quite what it seems.
At our highest, most tangible moments of energy or emotion, Prince Max explains, we leave traces or imprints on our surroundings. These traces are invisible to the naked eye, but when our glial cells are affected, our awareness of energy—and in this case, time—expands. Sherbatsky, Max, and now Sarah, have been, for all intents and purposes, time traveling. Sarah’s mysterious guide, Nicolas Pertusato, even went so far as to become stuck in time—a messy product of Tyco Brahe’s willingness to test the new drug on “his” dwarf, Jepp, in the 16th century.
While City of Dark Magic’s protagonists dabble in time travel, hang out with LVB and famous historical alchemists, and begin to search for the Golden Fleece (yes, that Golden Fleece), the contemporary world rages on. US Senator Charlotte Yates plots to retrieve old letters from Prague Castle that would prove her engagement with the KGB and erase her chance at the presidency. Murders are committed, threats are made, and child prodigies run rampant. The climax of the novel occurs, fittingly, in the midst of a historical costume ball and at the opening ceremonies for the Lobkowicz collection—successfully marrying past to present, metaphysical to physical, and politics to art.
Howrey and Lynch have presented us with a heavily meta-fictional comedy. Not only does each event within the story tie to its historical precedent—both figuratively and, thanks to Tyco Brahe, physically—the constant allusions to artistic and historical preservation bombard the novel’s audience with its own importance. When Sarah asks an art historian what a dog in a painting symbolizes, she is told, “De dog is just a dog.” But a dog, it turns out, is never just a dog—they represent a given person’s character throughout the novel, and often, though covertly, move along the action. And yes, there are more dogs abound than in most novels about time travel in Prague, but, we find, a dog is never just a dog—just as a book is never just a book, and an artifact is never just an artifact. In turns both brilliant and heavy-handed, Howrey and Lynch ensure that every object and character contain unprecedented importance at some point in the novel. Every dog, so they say, has its day. Preservation and documentation—even novel-writing—become vital.
If humanity has the potential to exist on all historical planes at once, it obtains that ability through scholarship, and through recognizing the similarities, as Sarah does, of every historical moment. And what better setting for such a theme than Prague? By juxtaposing Renaissance torture scenes, Nazism, Soviet communism, and present-day politics, City of Dark Magic successfully presents its political themes alongside its artistic standards.
But, even on the matter of entertainment, the novel succeeds. We are not bogged down with academic mumbo-jumbo as my review might imply, nor are the novel’s twists particularly mind-boggling. Sarah is a believable and adventurous protagonist, and she and her companions are diverse, brilliant, and maddening. The action is swift and the plot tantalizing. If you find yourself bored by chatter about old Czechoslovakian statuary, just wait—someone may well have sex on one of those statues. Similarly, if you are concerned that Prince Max will leave Sarah in the dust in an attempt to “protect” her, fear not, because Sarah is quick on the scent of bullshit; And if your worry, like mine at the novel’s onset, is that Sarah will end up as Beethoven’s famed “Immoral Beloved,” you can rest easy knowing that Howrey and Lynch are not nearly so trite.
Rookie author “Magnus Flyte” fails only in the manner of most writers concerned with tying every end of every thread. Their epilogue is boring, if only in comparison to the novel at large. It is, however, very much worth the journey.
Emily Nordling lives, reads, and sometimes writes historical fiction.