Book Review: City of Dark Magic

I can’t decide if this book is more fun or frustrating.

City of Dark Magic

City of Dark Magic (by “Magnus Flyte,” a pseudonym for Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch) attempts to be a genre-busting whirlwind of adventure and sensuous intrigue. Sensuous is probably the best word to describe it—this is a story revolving around different ideas of sensory perception. Sarah Weston is a Ph.D. student in Boston, studying under the eccentrically brilliant musicologist Dr. Sherbatsky. Upon his mysterious death, Sarah is invited to fill his spot studying Beethoven manuscripts at a castle in Prague. Sarah, you see, has a gifted ear for sound, and loves Beethoven. Beethoven famously had problems with intermittent deafness. Sarah’s favorite pupil, Pols, is blind, but her other senses are especially heightened. Prince Max, owner of the castle, experiments with a drug that increases the brain’s ability to sense the energy of “charged moments” from the past, and so is able to travel in time without actually travelling in time (it’s scientific, you see). Sarah and Max have a more-than-healthy libido. There’s mystery, crime, fantasy, science fiction, erotica… the publisher describes it as a “rom-com paranormal suspense novel.” That’s the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. 

I really, really want to like this book. And I do! Its story is gripping, sexy, and fresh. If I could turn off my brain for a minute, I’d love it to pieces. That’s probably why I found it more intriguing when (you guessed it) I was half asleep on a plane. It’s clearly the kind of book you read on vacation.

That doesn’t mean I can ignore its flaws. Sarah is very much a Mary-Sue: beautiful, brave, and brilliant. She’s the best student in her seminar, not in a way that annoys her peers, but definitely in a way that annoys other professors who just don’t understand. There’s a magic dwarf. An old romance between CIA and KGB operatives. A conniving evil senator who puts up with the trappings of femininity to appeal to voters. Pols is not much more than the blind poet-sage. Prince Max is Edward Cullen without the fangs. The writing is sometimes cringe-worthy—some sentences give Victor Hugo a run for his money. Oh, and there are hell portals. It’s like the authors picked and chose from their favorite works and crammed it all together under a different setting. I can almost see where everything comes from (Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chronicles of Chrestomanci…). The steamier scenes are relatively well-written, so much so that it gives me the impression that this book could have originally been a piece of erotica, but stripped of most of its sex and filled up with plot.

But the most frustrating aspect is the tension between “magic” and “science.” The fact that Prague is a “city of dark magic” and a “threshold” is beaten into the reader’s head. Sarah is more skeptical of anything more than science than her neuroscientist roommate. Magic and religion are one and the same. While there’s a solid (and academic!) argument to be made for a strong connection between the two, the authors play fast and loose with mysterious forces and the Infant of Prague. Then there’s the drug that heightens perception in certain brain cells—creating the illusion of time travel. The invented science or the invented magic would have been enough on their own, but combined it all becomes a bit too good to be true.

Overall, City of Dark Magic does provide us with something different. It’s a little bit of everything, but possibly too much of everything. It includes nearly all of the stereotypical “chick-lit” tropes, a beautiful heroine, a sexy prince, magic, mystery, lust… but, hey—maybe that’s exactly what you’re looking for.