City of Dark Magic: A Novel
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74 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2012
I was surprised to read some poor reviews of CITY OF DARK MAGIC. I'm not a regular reader of fantasy fiction, and in fact my usual book stack includes fiction of the "literary" sort, but I read CODM because I'm lucky to be a friend of a friend of one of the authors (there's full disclosure). To be honest, I wasn't thrilled to pick up the galley, but I was shocked to find how much I enjoyed this book. In the midst of the Edward St. Aubyn novels, or Andrew Solomon's new FAR FROM THE TREE, I kept hopping back to City of Dark Magic because it is just such intelligent fun.

Why? Because the book has taken the conventions of the fantasy genre and the WWII novel, rolled it up with some of the traditional spy schtick, dropped in some romance, and grounded it all in historically accurate biography of Beethoven, the astronomer Tycho Brahe, and all the patrons who supported and tormented them. There are lines throughout that made me laugh out loud ("The Nazis had been one thing. The communists another. But now there were *academics* crawling all over the palace") and that gesture to the fact that the authors are quite deliberately playing on the usual tropes of this sort of fiction. The book's small ventures into tiny objects of private interest--the search for Beethoven's Immortal Beloved, the placement of Prague as the mystical gateway between East and West, even the various tchotchkes being groomed and preserved at the palace--thrilled me, and made me feel in the presence of smart writers who understood their book as entertainment and wanted me to have a good time on the ride.

Is this book a confection? Absolutely. I don't intend to plumb the depths of the characters. But I was more than happy to go along with it, and I can say this: I've got a raft of award-winners on my night stand. But this is the book I stayed up well into the early morning to finish. Almost guiltily, but certainly with a lot of pleasure. I'll be giving this book to my reading friends for Christmas. In my opinion, it's just good, smart fun!
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54 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2012
Originally posted at BadassBookReviews.com!

I've got to admit, when I saw City of Dark Magic on Netgalley, I was lured in by the pretty cover and promise of dark magic. I thought I was getting a fantasy novel set in menacing Prague that would be full of magic and portals to other worlds. This book actually turned out to be more of a contemporary spy novel with some alchemy thrown in to explain a few things. Personally, I didn't connect with this novel or its characters and couldn't really recommend it to anyone looking for a fantasy or even urban fantasy read, but other reviewers seem to have enjoyed the book much more than me. I think it helps to know what you are getting into from the beginning instead of expecting one type of book and getting another.

The writing in this book was a little off-putting for me. It felt like I was reading a YA novel, but there were some pretty descriptive sex scenes that negated that notion. The writing just didn't flow very well and the conversations felt especially stilted. The pacing was also oddly inconsistent; I never felt a sense of urgency until the last thirty or so pages of the book. I did think the descriptions of Prague and its historical landmarks were well done though, so the writing wasn't a totally unpleasant.

City of Dark Magic had a strange and somewhat convoluted plot. We begin thinking that Sarah will be investigating the death of her mentor but that is wrapped up pretty quickly; then it seems to connect to Beethoven's Immortal Beloved letters, but that doesn't really go anywhere. Another thread begins with the American senator, Charlotte Yates. We are given her inside POV and she is setup as the bad guy from the get-go, so no real mystery for the reader. As Sarah and Max are learning about her background, the reader already knows everything so their reactions don't have much of an impact. Finally, Max is searching for the Golden Fleece and that remains a loose end. The plot was just not very cohesive at all and many pieces felt extraneous. The alchemy and time-travel felt more tacked on as an outside "air of mystery" than actually central to the story. I am entirely grossed out by the fact that Sarah and Max were eating toenails at the beginning of the story in order to ingest the time-travel drug. Yes, actual toenails that had residual amounts of the drug from the original user. Not toenail-shaped pills, actual toenails. Yuck!

The main heroine is Sarah Weston, a doctoral candidate who ends up in Prague for the summer after receiving a mysterious job offer. I never really connected to Sarah and didn't believe her as a "sleuth." She seemed to learn everything by accident or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The fact that she used her nose to make judgments was weird as well. She could smell when she was attracted to other people, she could smell when things were fishy, and she almost literally sniffed out a bomb. These weren't hypothetical smellings either; she actually used odors to make her decisions. It was more than a little strange. Her original characterization made it seem like she was a smart, no-nonsense kind of girl, but she made some really bad choices right off the bat that made it hard to take her seriously for the rest of the book.

Max was the main love interest, and it bothered me that other characters were telling Sarah she was in love with him after she had only met him twice. I don't have any clue where that came from. Overall, Max was a pretty bland character. Nothing about him really stood out to me. Even thinking back right now, I couldn't describe him to you for the life of me. Most of the other characters in this book also suffered from a one-dimensional characterization. There are many other scholars with Sarah and Max, but they all just blend together into an unimportant smarty soup.

The most intriguing characters in this book were Nico, an immortal dwarf, and Pols, a blind child prodigy. Of course we only got to spend a little time with each of them, but I would have been interested to learn more from their points of view. Nico is trying to find a way to die. He took an eternal life potion unknowingly and he has been alive for more than 400 years now. Pols is an absolute wonder on the piano but her condition has kept her mostly at home where she has become deeply religious and even thinks she can feel Beethoven when she is playing. I enjoyed all of their plot time immensely.

All in all, this book wasn't for me. The changing characteristics of the plot didn't do it many favors, and it seemed the writers couldn't decide what type of story they wanted to tell. The paranormal aspects weren't strong enough for me to recommend this to fantasy readers, and the mystery wasn't developed well enough for me to recommend this to readers of thrillers or spy novels. I would maybe recommend this to adult YA readers, but only with the caveat that it is more spy games than fantasy.

Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books for providing an ARC copy of this book!
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2012
4.5 Stars

'City of Dark Magic' is a unique and mysterious thrill ride of a novel - unlike anything I've read before. The plot surrounds the Prague Castle and the army of academics who have taken over for the summer in order to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. The story focuses on Sarah Weston, a music expert from Boston who is invited to help with the museum - specifically with the artifacts concerning Beethoven. Sarah can't ignore all the strange happenings that begin soon after her arrival and then people start dying. Who can Sarah trust? Who is the person behind all this chaos? And what is this mind altering drug that the Prince and her mentor were taking? Will Sarah be able to get to the bottom of everything before it's too late?

This novel was an enchanting and exciting blend of genres that I immediately fell in love with. There is so much going on during the book - murders, intrigue, mayhem, sex, drugs, time travel, alchemy and espionage to name a few - that it sucks you in and doesn't let go until the final word is read. The characters are all very interesting and distinct. I felt like they were a great cast of personalities for the book and all played their parts to perfection. I really liked the character of Sarah. She was brilliant and intuitive, but she definitely had flaws and character traits that made her feel very real. There is sex, swearing, and drugs in the novel, but this didn't bother me because it didn't detract from the main story. (Well, the drug in question may have actually enhanced the plot.)

Speaking of the plot - I barely have words to explain it. The authors paint such a vivid and beautiful depiction of both Prague and the Palace - it was easy to insert myself into the setting and the story. There are several story lines that happen at once in the book, all of which are some sort of mystery waiting to be untangled, and all seem to fit together in some way that doesn't show itself to the reader until the end. The main thread of the story is magical and breathtaking in it's entirety and I was enchanted by the way the story was told, the story itself, and the subject matter that was talked about. All of it wound together to make an unbelievably compelling novel that will resonate with me for a long time to come. It's one of those books that you feel you must re-read over and over in order to pick up on small details you missed before and also just to lose yourself in its pages again. In summary, this is one of the most imaginative and fascinating books I've ever read. It breaks genre boundaries and opens the reader up to endless possibilities. Highly recommended!

Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2013
City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte -- the pseudonym of authors Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch -- had an interesting concept. Flyte obviously did their research of Beethoven's life, and the twist with his "Immortal Beloved" was an interesting take on it.

However, that's unfortunately about the best I can say about City of Dark Magic, It was through sheer force of will that I finished this novel. The writing seems to be at an amateur level at best; the plot scattered and in general, just a mess. There's little to no character development throughout the story, and the dynamics between characters seems to fall flat.

With an antagonist who seems entirely power hungry, and just killing for the sake of killing, and a protagonist who is nothing special except for having a nose sensitive enough to smell things like danger, evil and pheromones, and has an extensive knowledge of Beethoven's music, there wasn't really much to the characters, nothing that makes you feel sympathy for their quest, or takes you on an emotional ride through their trials and triumphs.

While the book and the writing does seem to improve somewhat about half-way through; there are still sections in which it seems the authors forgot what genre they were writing, with segments which seem like they'd be better suited for an erotica novel - coupled with their style and word usage making the book feel like it was intended for young readers -- made those scenes awkward to read and completely unnecessary.
(Note: I have absolutely no issue with sex in novels, but when it's out of the blue and goes into great detail where it's completely out of place, it's probably best to leave it out.)

A lot of what was hinted at and referenced through the novel also fell short and were quite disappointingly executed, seeming rushed at best, or not given more than a few words of mention when they were finally shown.

This isn't a book I would recommend at all, but perhaps others will see what I failed to in this novel, and will enjoy it.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2013
I got City of Dark Magic because the premise sounded interesting. Yes the premise is interesting, but the book is not. I found myself getting frustrated with the writing, unnecessary descriptions, undeveloped plot points. Early in the book the main character finds that someone broke into her apartment and writes a strange symbol on her ceiling. Now me, if I was a researcher, would have at least started musing on the symbol, maybe even stopping to look it up. To me this would have made the story at least a little more suspenseful. But not this woman. She drinks grappa with her gorgeous Italian male roommate (a completely platonic relationship, because he doesn't smell sexy to her, come on!) gets drunk and falls asleep. I did too, but it was the book not grappa that did it too me.

I wasn't interested enough to finish. Life is too short and there are too many good books out there for me to waste my time with a poorly written one. Don't waste your's.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2013
I competely agree with the previous one star reviews! Almost juvenile writing, predictable story development, silly characters and sex thrown in every now and then when the plot stalls ruin an interesting concept of history, music and magic in beautiful Prague. To call this "one of the most entertaining books of the year" is a disservice.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2012
I read this book and also skimmed the reviews and felt compelled to write my own. I picked up City of Dark Magic, which my wife brought home, with very little expectation that I would enjoy it. I'm not a big reader of fantasy books but this book does bring together a few different genres which I enjoy and ended up being a total page-turner for me. Like millions of others, I got a kick out of The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. The historian thrust into adventure is a fun tale. Well, that's what City of Dark Magic was, only much, much smarter. It's very well-researched and, even though I've never been to Prague, made a place I hadn't given much thought to into a fantasy wonderland that I now can't wait to visit. But I'd want to "Dark Magic" tour!

I was on a long road trip when I started reading City of Dark Magic, with five flights over as many days, and I found it to be the perfect traveling companion. I needed the long stretches in flight to really enjoy the book and get through each adventure. After every chapter, I couldn't wait to find out what our heroine would be up to next. I also learned a lot about Prague's history and gained a glimpse into the world of old Europe and Beethoven that I never knew much about.

Book reviews use a lot of corny words, but in this case, several apply. City of Dark Magic was a rollicking romp through time, continents, governments and great families, history, music, sex, intrigue and murder. I was totally entertained from cover to cover.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2012
I'm not what you'd consider the "target reader" of this book, if there is one -- I would not necessarily have picked it up off the shelf if someone hadn't recommended it to me, and I don't generally go for genre fiction (though this book plays with genres rather than falling neatly into one or another). So I opened its pages with a bit of skepticism. But I was immediately swept into the story: Not just the plot, which is a real page-turner, but the characters, particularly the salty, skeptical heroine. In fact, she could easily serve as a proxy for a reader like me -- the difference being she's experiencing the weirdness instead of just reading about it. As a result, I devoured it in two marathon sittings. I've never been to Prague, but I have been to cities like Milan and Turin that share some of what I imagine to be Prague's spooky, mysterious aura. This book captures that atmosphere perfectly. (I want to go to there!) Wonderfully, the book starts off in the real world and descends into one of magic -- so that at the end, you're left to wonder, what next?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2013
City of Dark Magic tells the story of Sarah Weston, a PhD student, who journeys to Prague to catalogue and curate a selection Beethoven's manuscripts, both personal letters and music. The logical Sarah must confront the possibility of religion, time travel, and a "hell portal" as well as the historical legacy of the Nazis and the Soviet Bloc countries on the city. Along the way, she meets a lover and becomes caught in a spy game that proves deadly for those around her. This book reads like a combination of the fantasy novel and the spy thriller. This does not prove to be happy marriage of genres, however, and City of Dark Magic doesn't quite measure up to what it seems like it should be.

First, I want to be clear: this is not a work for young readers. In the current publishing culture, young adult fantasy is a promising commodity. And something about the cover and even the size and length of this work suggests YA. This is very much not the case, primarily because of the rather graphic sex scenes. These do not dominate the book, but are provocative and detailed enough to move the work off of the YA shelf.

There is much to recommend this book: the writing is clean and pleasant to read; the central characters are interesting because they are rather enigmatic. The city of Prague is, herself, almost like a character here. Before Sarah even leaves Boston to go to Prague, the city's atmosphere and reputation infuse the story with a very particular atmosphere. As a fan of speculative fiction, this should be right up my alley. And yet, the whole doesn't quite feel like what all the sum of these wonderful parts should add up to. The pacing is quick, and yet the suspense that we might expect from a spy thriller just isn't quite there. There are hints of the supernatural around every corner, and yet the work doesn't enchant the reader in quite the way that a good fantasy novel, with the thoughtful creation of a secondary reality, should. This may be because although the central characters are interesting enough, the secondary characters are flat, many of them almost interchangeable.

The central character, Sarah Weston, is a Beethoven scholar. Much of the text is devoted to her musings on Beethoven's biography and music, even to her experience of the music. The love we might expect an academic to have for her field is somehow not conveyed as fully as I would have liked. In fact, many of the discussions of Beethoven feel a bit esoteric. I think that I would have preferred more enthusiasm from Sarah as well as a slightly less academic analysis of Beethoven. As it is written, we get Sarah's inside jokes--she refers to him as LVB, for instance--without any authentic warmth. I feel like this aspect of the story is forced and not terribly authentic. In fact, there's something slightly pretentious about it, as though the authors want us, as readers, to be impressed with their inside knowledge of composer.

In all, City of Dark Magic is entertaining enough but without any real substance. I love the idea of this novel, love the idea of combining the fantasy and spy-thriller genres in this way, but in the end something about this combination just doesn't quite work.

NOTE: A review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

This review originally posted in a slightly different form at Luxury Reading, a fantastic book review web site. I urge you to check it out! It also posted at Speaking of Books, a site devoted to book reviews and discussions of literature and culture. Visit us on the web!
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Prague is a city steeped in magic, blood, and the home to some of the most adroit minds in history. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston is quickly discovering. She has been invited over to Prague to catalog Beethoven's papers for Prince Max after her mentor's tragic death and finds herself pulled deep into the intrigue laced throughout the heart of Prague.

`City of Dark Magic' is a wild ride through the streets and history of Prague. Sarah discovers there is more to meet the eye about Prague, Beethoven, and the people she's working with over the summer. The author has crafted a beautiful work of art in this novel and I found myself drawn in as much as Sarah. A tantalizing world grows in your mind's eye as the author's words paint the picture effortlessly with tempestuous characters and a beautifully dark setting. I highly enjoyed `City of Dark Magic' in a similar way I enjoyed Ms. Deborah Harkness' `A Discovery of Witches' - holding my breath to see what unfolded for Sarah and Prince Max next. I hope there is a sequel!
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