I generally don’t read romantic comedies. I don’t watch romantic comedy movies either. It’s a matter of personal taste, and I’m not saying my taste is good (after all, I will watch any SyFy Original Monster-of-the-Moment movie; I’ll read any lame thriller). Rom-coms just don’t do much for me.
Here’s the exception: City of Dark Magic, by Rupert Flyte (the pseudonym for the two writers, Meg Howry and Christina Lynch). The title and the cover pulled me in before I realized what was happening; a skyscape of Prague at the bottom of the book, the Monad, an alchemical figure associated with Dr John Dee, in musical looking lines front and center. Then I read the back, “Prague is a threshold/To another world/Where the fabric of time is thin/A city steeped in blood.”
Wow! This sprightly rom-com has everything. Everything; cute dogs, acrobatic sex, haute couture, quasi-magical drugs, art, Beethoven, clever banter, a four hundred year old dwarf, a heroine whose acute sense of smell is the key to the plot, the identity of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved*, exquisite travelogue about the most fascinating city in Europe, a blind child genius, acrobatic sex, secret codes, secret journals, secret passages, secret letters, secret rooms. Did I mention that several characters engage in acrobatic sex? Did I mention the Golden Fleece? The driven and strangely Hillary-Clinton-like (though Republican) US Senator? Did I mention Tycho Brahe? Did I mention… ?
The book bounds along, with enough wit and pacing to distract from any of the obvious plot questions a reader might have. Sarah Weston, pursing her PhD in musicology, is a Beethoven student with a very sensitive nose. She gets invited, strangely, to a castle in Prague to complete a Beethoven exhibit her mentor started, before he jumped, or fell (or was pushed?) out a window and died. Prince Lobkowicz, the currently owner of the castle and the large, eclectic family treasure, was actually raised in America. From the moment Sarah arrives, things get freaky, and she gets freaky with an anonymous lover in the castle’s bathroom.
Sarah is funny and smart, definitely the sexual aggressor in one or two of her hook-ups, and pretty brave. The writers go a bit too far when they introduce two other art restorers. Sometimes, trying to play exactly against stereotypes just creates a different kind of stereotype, and that’s what happened here. US Senator Charlotte Yates has the same trouble as a character; a bit over the top in a book that’s already well over the top. (Surprisingly, the four hundred year old dwarf is not over the top.) I observed these flaws, but I wasn’t stopped by them.
Characters we’ve met die, some in gruesome ways, but the writers work around this by shielding us from the view of the bodies, mostly, and making sure it’s not characters we know well.
Howry and Lynch have both written for television, and I think that comes through here in a couple of odd ways. For example, while we are told Sarah is attractive, we are given no physical description. Prince Max is described as looking like his various ancestors, but again, no real physical description. Interesting choice… as if they are leaving it up to the casting directors of the reader’s imagination to put faces and hair color on the performers. By contrast, Nico, Suzi and Oksana are quite well described.
This book would make a perfect one-season series on Showtime or HBO, or even BBC America if it was on late enough. Smart, silly, suspenseful, ready to be filmed in the Czech Republic… who wouldn’t green-light that?
*Okay, not really.