Reviewing a disappointing novel is, at times, an exercise in careful precision. Is it disappointing because of what it is, or because of what I wanted from it? Is it disappointing because I read it back-to-back with a novel that dealt with many of the same themes in a more complex, more assured fashion? Is it disappointing because it’s now fourteen months into a global pandemic and I’m a gnarled, crabby knuckle of a human being joylessly waiting to punch everything in the face? You must decide for yourself, though I often fear it’s the latter.
This preamble may perhaps indicate to you that I found The Lights of Prague, Nicole Jarvis’s debut novel, rather disappointing.
It committed a couple of what are to me deadly sins in a novel: it failed to make me care about its characters (or, really, to find their attitudes and actions believable in its context) while its setting seems depicted with the kind of shallow, isn’t-this-cool naivety that is frequently the hallmark of Americans writing about places outside the USA, an exoticising trend that places great emphasis on interesting architectural and geographic features, and pays much less attention to the social and political context as experienced by the inhabitants.
The year is 1868. In the city of Prague, a guild of lamplighters does the rounds evening and night, lighting up the gaslamps that have been spreading illumination across the city for the last twenty years. But the lamplighters have an additional, secret responsibility: they fight monsters in the dark. Pijavica, a word which translates to “leeches”, are vampiric creatures that hunt in the darkness and cannot abide the sun. But there are other monsters on the city streets and the waterways, and some of the pijavica are combining alchemy, magic, and science in a quest to reclaim the daylight.
In the reign of Franz-Joseph, after the Peace of Prague that saw Austria cede primacy among the German states to a freshly bellicose Prussia, one might expect some of those monsters to be humans, seeking to weaponise the pijavica (who are apparently known to officialdom)… but alas, that would make for a more interesting novel than this one.
Domek Myska is a lamplighter and monster-hunter. Quite by accident, he is acquainted with Lady Ora Fischerová, who—unbeknownst to him—is an ethical sort of vampire, eschewing human blood for animal. Domek knows her only as a wealthy and outré widowed noblewoman. (The novel would have us believe they experience a mutual attraction. I fear I do not find the chemistry well-portrayed.)
When Domek stumbles into—or over—a powerful spirit trapped in a jar, that had been in the possession of one of the vampires, he finds himself with something that everyone wants, and something that his own organisation (he will discover) cannot be trusted to handle. With the unwilling aid of this spirit, now enslaved to do his bidding, he discovers the vampires are seeking a way to enhance their powers and walk in the light. He also comes to the mistaken conclusion that Ora is one of his enemies.
Ora, meanwhile, has been manipulated by one of her friends, a state official who is aware of her nature, into investigating what’s going on with vampires and why some of them seem to be walking in daylight. This sends her into several different kinds of danger, including from Domek. When they finally straighten out who’s (or ought to be) killing whom and work together, they have a fight on their hands. And maybe a moral dilemma.
In some respects, The Lights of Prague reminds me of the film Underworld (2003), except without Underworld’s gleefully over-the-top pulp commitment: it’s interested in the imagery of a dark, monster-haunted city full of plots and perils without the substance of how this works, or why it should make sense, or where it fits into a broader context. But The Lights of Prague takes itself just a bit too seriously to have fun with it. Dark brooding people in a dark brooding city full of monsters? Meh. Especially when the brooding people are kind of tedious.
My go-to brooding atmospheric vampiric novels in gaslight European cities are Barbara Hambly’s James Asher books. Those Who Hunt the Night and its sequels are never shallow or tedious. If The Lights of Prague fails to scratch your itch for a good read, as it failed to scratch mine, I recommend you check them out.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. Find her on Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.