Saturday, May 4, 2013

City of Dark Magic, Magnus Flyte

"This deliciously madcap novel has it all: murder in Prague, time travel, a misanthropic Beethoven, tantric sex, and a dwarf with an attitude." – Conan O'Brien

While I probably wouldn't have put it quite that way, I cannot disagree: this book was fantastic! It had everything: Boston, Prague, music, spies, murder, politics, traitors, love, sex, jealousy, alchemy, science, royalty, communists, Nazis, and, yes, time travel (though, it's a bit of a misnomer). I've always been of the mind that a so-so plot with really good characters can make a really good story, and a really good plot with bad characters can make a pretty shitty story. This book has both: great characters immersed in a great plot.

The book is primarily from Sarah's, a musicologist from Boston, point of view. She's ambitious and smart; and very open with her sexuality (though I wouldn't go as far as our dear Conan). She studies Beethoven in particular. This character is so well rounded. She has her faults but she doesn't dwell in them. Romance exists for her, but it's not a primary function. She has friends and family, and neither are perfect.

Sarah is offered a summer position in Prague working in Prague Castle to finish her mentor's work with the Beethoven collection. Her mentor went out the window and died, leaving his work incomplete. Sarah doesn't believe it was suicide – and that begins her efforts to find out what's going on at Prague Castle.

Through her efforts, she ends up at another castle belonging to the family that owns Prague Castle. She decides to stay the night looking through the library. Before she can get started, she sees 2 men kissing. Only they're not, it's CPR. Max, the heir to Prague Castle and all that goes with it (aka her boss), is trying to revive a man. Turns out the man was shot and left to frame Max and discredit him. As the story progresses, Sarah and Max form a relationship. A real partnership – though trust is definitely an issue and Max is a pretty terrible liar.

Sarah finds out that her mentor and Max discovered a drug that allows you to see the past. And in some cases the past can interact with you. This is why "time travel," isn't exactly the right description. Their bodies don't go anywhere. Their bodies are still in the present. They can't interact with the past, the bodies of the past are incorporeal, but their minds can see it. There are some moments of interaction, but they're fleeting and unsubstantial – though poignant.

The drug was discovered by an alchemist and given to Beethoven to help restore his hearing. It worked to a large extent – there were just a few unexpected side effects. Like time travel. "How did the drug end up in the present?" you may ask, "How did it survive?" Well, that's where the ick-factor (temporarily) escalates. A toenail. Beethoven's toenail to be exact. Go ahead, I'll wait while you have a mini-gag fest. How the writers came up with that, I have no idea. Nor do I want one.

Good? OK, moving on. So, the mentor and Max are using this drug to see the past. The issue is the drug shows you all of the past. You have to concentrate and focus to see what you want. The mentor was looking for Beethoven. Max is looking for something far more…mysterious: the Golden Fleece. His family was meant to be the protectors of the Fleece, only it's been lost for hundreds of years. Now he's in charge and this mantel of power and responsibility are his.

Meanwhile, in America, a high profile US Senator is plotting. Charlotte is another fantastic character and gets a few chapters from her POV. Now, she is the villain, so she's a horrible person, but I find her really fascinating. Typically, I have issues with female bad guys. It's not because women can't be bad – they absolutely can and can be more vicious than their male counterparts. My issue with female villains is that they tend to be caricatures. They're overly sexualized, or overly masculine-ized, or sociopathic, or their motives are tied to their gender. That's obviously a generalization and not true of all characters everywhere. In fact, I find the fantasy genre avoids these pitfall for the most part; sci-fi, too. I think it's because they're not tied to the IRL social structure books taking place in "our world" are.

Though she's a villain, she's also a feminist character to my mind. There are several points in through the book when she gives a good look at what it is to be a female politician. She talks about how she has to be so careful with her image. For example, she talks about how she uses reading glasses she doesn't need because it makes her more likable. Now, being the horrible person she is, it's no wonder she's not "likable," but the kind of likability she's talking about has nothing to do with her being a murderer and traitor. Female politicians have to struggle with issues that don't even occur to their male counterparts. I think my favorite Charlotte-ism is towards the end of the book. She's touring a few cities in Europe as an excuse to go to Prague, supposedly to talk about terrorism. She comments on her coral pantsuit, and decides "there was something fuck you about discussing terrorism while wearing pink." While pink is definitely not my thing, I can appreciate the sentiment. 

Anyway, Charlotte is cunning and ambitious, and completely secure in her belief she is doing the right and necessary thing. She is a master of rationalization. She was a CIA agent in Prague during communism. She fell in love and had an affair with a KGB agent who was later murdered. Max's family had escaped to the US before communism and their properties and holding were consolidated "for the people." Charlotte and her KGB lover wrote letters to each other and spent much time in Max's properties.

Now, it can easily be argued that they were both using the other, and the letters were a mutual leverage thing. Mutually assured destruction, if you will. Regardless, the letters exist and are hidden somewhere in Prague Castle. In present day, Charlotte is a prominent senator planning to run for President – being outed as traitor probably wouldn't be a good thing. She's the type of person who believes the rules and regulations of government get in the way of actually governing. She works behind the scenes, manipulating, to run the government. If the letters were to come out she would be a traitor – though she certainly doesn't see herself that way. She doesn't see the lives her actions ruined. A maid at the castle is actually one of her victims. She was a ballerina who planned to defect on a trip to dance in the US. Somehow the KGB finds out and holds her down while they run a car over her ankles, ruining any chance to dace and essentially taking her life. But Charlotte doesn't see it as a problem, she was just a ballerina, not a government official. See: rationalization.

In order to get the letters, she enlists the help (read: manipulates and bribes) of Max's (distant) cousin. The cousin wants the family holdings a court determined belonged to Max. She's trying to get it through underhanded means, as well as telling Max they should "consolidate" the family lines by marrying. The cousin is responsible for the murder of one of the other academics who found the letters, though it's unclear if she herself killed the woman, or had a minion do it. I'm hoping she did it herself, because she dies and no minion is held responsible. She doesn't think the family's belonging should be in a museum where the "people" (she actually quotes the word) can be near them.

I'm going to change gear for a second and go back to Max. I liked him; he was moody and not at all the typical charming prince. But I did find him somewhat…weak? Ineffectual? …at times. It's hard for me to articulate. He admits to Sarah he's not a strategist when she confronts him with proof his cousin is planned to kill Sarah. While that's hard to argue with given the circumstances, it's his reaction to the idea they marry to consolidate the family that I find confusing. He just seems to be willing to go with it – without really thinking it through. It seems he's willing to just accept and do what he's told, yet he's clearly not a trusting person. He's a bit of an enigma for me.

Good thing I won't have to let my curiosity stand. I had picked this book to read now in part because it wasn't part of a series. Or so I thought! *grumble, grumble* A sequel is out in paperback at the end of this year, but I knew that when I started; a sequel does not a series make. Unfortunately, the search for the Golden Fleece continues, and I think until that ends, the books will continue. Now, that's not to say I don't want this to be a series, but as you can tell from my Anita Blake reviews, I like to do series marathons. Now I have to wait. *sigh*

Whether or not I have to wait, this was such a good book. Charlotte gets what she deserves, as does the cousin. Max and Sarah end up together – he continues his work to get his family's holdings in order and to find the Fleece, while Sarah returns to Boston to finish her studies. I think I like that small piece just as much as the book as a whole. In so many stories you find characters altering their lives for each other. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, it's just nice to see something different: the decision to keep having your own life and making the relationship work. Max is even a old school romantic, insisting on writing love letters by hand

All and all: HIGHLY recommended.

City of Dark Magic, Magnus Flyte

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