City of Dark Magic – Magnus Flyte

This book (received from Netgalley) did not get off on the right foot with me. The publisher apparently thought it would be oh-so-amusing to put this little note at the very beginning:

“The manuscript of the book you are about to read arrived in the mail one day at Penguin headquarters in New York with no cover letter. It was written on stationery from the Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakech using a manual typewriter, and postmarked on the Isle of Mull. The return address was simply ‘Flyte, Magnus.’ When the editors sought details about the author, they found them to be conflicting. He may be American. He may have ties to one or more intelligence organizations, including a radical group of Antarctic separatists. He may be the author of a monograph on carnivorous butterflies. He may live in Venice, Vienna, Vladivostok, or Vermont. City of Dark Magic may be his first novel.

I hate cutesy author profiles. This has an archness to it, an aren’t-we-clever-ness, which I find completely off-putting – and that’s without even bothering to bring up the little fact that a writer sending in a book as described would have their manuscript circular-filed before the echoes of the manual typewriter died. This just … isn’t funny. In point of fact, two women wrote it. Just say so.

Adding to the bad taste that left in my mouth – The Goodreads ad that keeps popping up for it:
“What do a music student, a U.S. senator, a 400 year-old dwarf, and a time-traveling prince have in common? A mystery in Prague. ‘This deliciously madcap novel has it all’ – Conan O’Brien

(Really? Conan O’Brien a) reviewed a book and b) called it “deliciously madcap”? Are we talking about the same Conan O’Brien?) It irritated me because the “400 year-old dwarf” thing was a complete spoiler for me. I was going to put spoiler tags on it, but it’s in the ad, and in the GR synopsis, so … *shrug* OK. Whatever. The other irritation is – “madcap”? I … no. No, it’s not. Madcap: wildly or heedlessly impulsive; reckless; rash: a madcap scheme. Synonyms: Farce, romp, frolic. Bringing Up Baby is the first movie to come to mind and also in a search. Bringing Up Baby does not have a body count. (Arsenic and Old Lace, also a madcap comedy, does certainly have a body count, but all those killed are a) killed off-screen, b) are complete strangers to the viewer, and c) are killed by well-meaning old ladies. And it’s very well written. A&OL is funny, which is helpful in a comedy.)

A body count racked up by government baddies and the CIA and the KGB and whatever else is in here (what isn’t in here?) and including among its number a loved one of a main character and someone rather nice and inoffensive who never did anything to annoy me unlike the main characters – ? Not madcap.

Sarah Weston is a music student in Boston; her mentor went to Prague to work on the music section of the creation of a museum for the straggling heirs of a Czech royal family, from a massive amount of treasure that had either survived or been recovered from the Nazis and the communists. There are hand-written papers from Beethoven in the collection, which is how Sarah’s mentor got involved, and he has recommended her to come and assist him. This job offer comes hand-delivered by a dwarf retainer of the Lobkowicz family, and is followed shortly by word of Sarah’s mentor’s death by suicide.

There is some good stuff in here. The writing was solid. It just wasn’t “madcap”, or altogether consistent. I seem

Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven when composing t...

to say this a lot lately, but – I wanted to like Sarah. One stumbling block for that is … well, she’s a sl- no. I’ll be nice. She is an enthusiastic connoisseur of the sex act. The – no, I have to say it: the sluttiness didn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of her personality, but there is an Encounter on her very first evening in the Palace. Two, really, with two different men, one at the table in the middle of dinner with someone she has barely met, followed by one in a bathroom – and the male partner in the latter remains a mystery to her for several chapters. I’m sorry. I don’t like starting off a book completely disgusted with the main character I’m expected to spend the next couple hundred pages with.

As for the rest of it … I don’t see farce here. I don’t see madcap. If this had been written as a serious mystery/fantasy/whatever with a sense of humor, it might have worked; the reason this made it to three stars instead of less was that there were moments that actually had me by the metaphorical lapels, and had me fascinated. But … it was trying to be a farce. Actually, I think it was trying to be the Pink Panther – and I hate to admit it, I didn’t find that terribly funny, either. Either time. Most of the impulsive behavior (see “madcap” definition above) encompasses sex, which just annoyed me more than anything. Perhaps the fact that Sarah is given the ability to see Beethoven, and he farts a lot – ? Maybe that was supposed to be funny. Gas is always funny, right? Wait, there’s a dwarf – is that supposed to be inherently funny? What looks like a toenail in a box, which Our Heroine ingests? Tee hee? Yeah – no. I didn’t think so. It was all of a piece with that weird little intro – trying to be arch and coy and funny. And failing.

I don’t know. I said there was some good stuff in here; there certainly was a lot of stuff in here – kind of like the masses of all kinds of treasure and artifact the experts are combing through in the Palace. But where they ended up with a beautiful, elegant museum showcasing all the wonderful things, this – this was just a bit of a mess.

Spy caper? Comedy? Fantasy? Mystery? Political commentary? Tick off “All of the above”. If the writer(s) (or editors) had just picked one – even two – of these and concentrated on doing that well, this could have been good.

At least now I can live the rest of my life knowing Beethoven was gassy. Yay me.

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One Response to City of Dark Magic – Magnus Flyte

  1. Pingback: Murder with Peacocks – Donna Andrews | Stewartry

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