Monday, February 24, 2014

City of Dark Magic


       Okay, so the rundown is as follows: Magnus Flyte has written a very dense, very enjoyable book that goes absolutely nowhere. That's not hyperbole, that's not a bad joke, the book goes three hundred pages in one direction, then remembers it's supposed to have a plot and writes a one hundred page sequel to the three hundred page mess that came before it. 

                       The book follows the exploits of musicologist* Sarah Weston as she is drawn into murder, intrugue, and romance in the city of Prague, navigating these dark currents with the aid of an immortal dwarf and the last prince of the Lobkowicz family line. 

                         The good is a very dense, very colorful narrative with a unique cast of characters.

                           The bad is that none of that is actually given anything to do, the supporting characters are a lot more interesting than Sarah and Prince Max. The result is a messy book that is only a joy to read when you don't know you're being fooled, and like pulling teeth when you do.       

                            In the end, I'd say missing this one would be the best thing you could possibly do, but check out the sequel, or wait until Flyte writes an entire book about Suzi Oshiro. Those might be less of a waste of time.   

More, as always, below.

"It's like if Ted Nugent had a Masterpiece Theatre porn fantasy."
"Awesome. That's kind of what I was going for. Class with ass."
- Sarah Weston and Suzi Oshiro

                      I'd like to talk for a moment about editing. Editing is the process of the book where you take this weird thing you've put to paper, and you start hacking bits and pieces off it, and changing it, so that you can make it more readable and so that people who aren't you can understand it. It's a long process, and an arduous one, and most of the time when you workshop your piece you have a bunch of people who wouldn't read your work at gunpoint trying to make sense of it and make it work for them. So it kind of has a bad reputation. There are some who extol the virtues of the editing process, but make no mistake, it's one part "how do I make this work?" and one part "how do I climb this hill with a ball and chain attached to my ankle?"

                                 So I really sympathize, I really do, with "Magnus Flyte", the pseudonymous author of City of Dark Magic. If it were my book, I'd be upset and try to leave all the cool stuff in that I possibly could. They have a lot of interesting ideas circling around, and it's interesting the way everything plays out. But in the end, they needed a much better editor and maybe someone to go "This is great...but where does it go?" Because in the end, it doesn't matter how many cool elements your book has, if they don't hang together at all, then you get smartasses like me telling you how much they would have enjoyed your book if your editor had just done a slightly better job at the switch. 

                                  City of Dark Magic is the story of Sarah Weston. Sarah is a graduate student, a musicologist with a special interest in studying the works of Beethoven. She has a strange but ultimately boring life between her gorgeous Italian physicist roommate, her job as a music tutor for a blind child prodigy, and sharing her office with another graduate student (a man interested in madrigals who assaults her with his renditions of them on recorder). As the story begins, Sarah receives a letter from the Lobkowicz Foundation in Prague offering a position restoring their music room. The position was formerly the spot of her mentor, Professor Scherbatsky, who died one night in an apparent suicide when he fell out a window. They also send Sarah several thousand dollars worth of marks. When she discusses the position with her roommate and her music pupil, they both give vague warnings about the Infant of Prague, hell portals underneath the city, and other strange goings-on.

And then things get weird. 

                                  A tiny, sardonic man with a mellifluous voice appears to Sarah with a pillbox shaped like a copper nose. Strange alchemical symbols formerly used by John Dee get drawn on her ceiling. When she finally gets to Prague, her mentor's suicide seems even more like it wasn't. The prince of the Lobkowicz family is acting suspicious. And some time after her arrival, dead bodies start to turn up at the museums. After an experience with a drug that allows the user to see and interact with other time periods (stacked on top of each other like some kind of overlay), Sarah gets arrested for having tantric sex in a fountain. But this is just the beginning of the strange things afoot in Prague. There are mysteries within mysteries Sarah has discovered, and if she wishes to survive to see her job through, she will have to unravel all of them 

                                   I suppose the thing I can praise the most about this book is the color. Not that the book itself is colorful, but that the events it details are beautifully unique and it's a very innovative book. The characters all feel unique for the most part, and my favorite would be the bisexual Japanese-Texan gun historian, who loudly packs up every scene she's in and walks away with them firmly in her back pocket. What kept me reading the book was that each new detail, each new insane plot element or risk Flyte took made me want to know where it was going. And that's a beautiful thing. I wish other books took as many risks as this book took, and I'd appreciate if I saw this from an author with a little more control on their pitch. If nothing else, I can say that City of Dark Magic is a book that is bursting with originality and risk, and that makes it a lot of fun even when it doesn't go anywhere.

                                But that's just it-- the book doesn't go anywhere. There are a lot of plot threads that don't even begin to get tied up, a lot of questions that Flyte make clear their readers are supposed to care about, but never get answered. The book promises a wild gonzo-historical journey through Prague, with stops off at academic satire and some romantic comedy. What it gives us is just academic satire, romantic comedy, and some thriller elements, elements that are introduced through the story only to be shoved to the foreground when Flyte realizes that there are only a hundred pages left and it's time for the book to come to some kind of conclusion. And if that wasn't enough of a towering "screw you" to readers, this is the first planned book of several, meaning that they never planned to wrap up any of the numerous threads they put into motion in the first place. And while at first you just want to see where the book goes, as the book goes on the desire to do so lessens more and more the more one realizes that the book isn't going anywhere, or at least not anywhere it promises.

                                You see, Flyte pulls kind of a bait-and-switch. The book purports to be a lot more fantastical than it is. Sure, there are a few fantastical elements here and there-- Tycho Brahe's drug that allows one to see and interact with all time periods at once, the tiny exhibitionist Nicolas Petrusato, the setting for the climax of the book-- but it's really more a romantic comedy thriller by the end, a power struggle between agents of intrigue in Prague and the book's heroes, Sarah Weston and Prince Max Anderson-Lobkowicz. Furthermore, an incident in Venice similar to the death that kicks off the plot is mentioned, but the question is never answered. It's the entire prologue, and it feels like it's in the wrong book.

                                    Actually, that's the other problem: A lot of the elements of fantasy in the book feel like they could be comfortably removed without damaging the overall structure. There's an entire plot about Tycho Brahe, John Dee, and Greek mythology that seems like it would be a better plot for the book, but is never really expanded upon in any kind of detail. There are three hundred pages of setup, and the part that actually matters throughout those three hundred pages is a B-story about a senator who is trying to cover up her past as an espionage agent in Prague. This isn't surprising, it isn't shocking, it isn't a kind of swerve, it's a bait-and-switch, and if they wanted to write the book they were apparently trying to write, they could have done it in less time. 

                                  I suppose I should note here that the book is very well-written. With a little more control, with someone who didn't fall asleep at the switch, with an editor who was a little more exacting, this could be a brilliant book, one that I'd keep on my shelf next to Lamb and Bloodsucking Fiends. It's delightful up until the point you realize you've been had.

                                 But in the end, the book is a con job. A major con job. And thus it isn't worth the time that you would spend reading it. Leave this one on the shelf. Maybe give the sequel a go if you really feel like picking up a book written by Magnus Flyte. But City of Dark Magic is best left on the shelf you found it, and if you really want to read the same kind of book but done right, find where they keep the Christopher Moore and grab a copy of Lamb, or A Dirty Job, or hell, even Coyote Blue or Sacre Bleu. You'll enjoy yourself more, and you'll curse the name of Magnus Flyte a lot less.

Oh! And to Mr. Flyte's literary executors/wranglers/puppetmasters, any time Mr. Flyte wants to make a whole book about Shuziko "Suzi" Oshiro instead of dull Sarah Weston, please send me a copy. That would be, like, my most favorite thing ever. 

The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan

Mainspring by Jay Lake
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Koko by Peter Straub
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*Sadly not frontier musicologist, but that would just be silly. 

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