Category Archives: Book Review: Mystery

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Book Review: “Mr. Timothy: A Novel” by Louis Bayard

Read Mr. Timothy: A Novel

I received Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy: A Novel as a Christmas gift more than a year ago. Since it is a sequel (of sorts) to Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, I decided to wait and read it over the holidays. I shouldn’t have waited.

If you’ve read my earlier reviews of The Meaning of Night and The Shadow of the Wind, you know I am fast becoming a fan of the emerging “Victorian Noir” genre: tales set in the romantic but shadowy Europe of Dickens and Hugo, but with modern pace and psychological character depth. It’s a love that began, I think, with that long-ago favorite, The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Most of those books seem to echo the feel of Dickens and his ilk—colorful characters, quaint pubs, sinister urban underbellies, and fog-shrouded alleys and gaslit streets, for example—without offering literal echos. Mr. Timothy: A Novel goes farther. The Timothy of the title is none other than Timothy Cratchit himself, Tiny Tim. Stripped utterly of his angelic sentimentality, Bayard’s Timothy emerges as a fully realized character worthy to number among the best Dickensian heroes.

I should mention that I am not generally a fan of writers making use of another author’s characters. While I have enjoyed more than a few modern takes on, say Sherlock Holmes, more often, we wind up with something like Scarlet, the unworthy followup to Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant Gone With The Wind. Mr. Timothy: A Novel succeeds largely because in Dickens’ original, Tiny Tim is little more than a caricature, a sort of cherubic plot point with a crutch. Building on our shared memory of “God bless us, every one!” Bayard shapes Timothy into a fully realized, if somewhat broken, human being—one that fascinates and, yes, makes us care.

Bayard’s Timothy is young man who, like Dickens’ Pip, say, or David Copperfield, is struggling to find a place for himself in a wide, atmospheric, and often dangerous world. Trying to free himself from his dependency on the generosity of his “Uncle” Neezer (none other than an elderly Ebeneezer Scrooge himself, a man who keeps his house decorated perpetually for Christmas), Timothy earns his room and keep by teaching the madam of a London brothel how to read. Timothy is a man haunted—not by the literal spirits that troubled his Uncle Neezer, but by images of his late father, and by the bodies of murdered 10-year-old girls, who appear in London’s seedy docklands branded with a letter G.

The mystery that follows is a page turner, with a puzzling mystery in a coffin-filled basement, an assault on a gloriously gothic mansion, and a desperate final chase along the urban river. The characters are, well, Dickensian—all colorful, complex, and worthy of the master himself. The mystery is intriguing and the suspense is relentless. But the true stars are Timothy himself, as the events both scar and heal him, and Bayard’s lush, elegant prose, filled with passages that beg to be read aloud and shared.

As another old favorite, Silverlock, reminds me, there is a joy in meeting old literary friends again in a new and unexpected place. Mr. Timothy: A Novel is more than a pastiche. It’s a fully realized and absolutely original novel that is well worth your time. Don’t repeat my mistake and wait for next year’s winter holiday season. Do yourself a favor and read it now.

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Book Review: “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox

Read The Meaning of Night: A Confession

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post listing my fifteen favorite first sentences in literature. At the time, I hadn’t read Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night: A Confession, or I would have been forced to give serious consideration to including it. It begins: After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an Oyster Supper. Now that’s a pretty good start. It’s an opening that hooks us immediately on the story, certainly. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going to follow that. More, it hooks us on character—who is this narrator, and how can he describe an act of terrible violence in such a casual manner? I’m happy to report that the balance of the novel lives up to the promise of that first sentence. It is a dark, chilling read, and an utterly compelling one.

Like another favorite of mine, Charles Palliser’s Quincunx, The Meaning of Night is set in the fog-draped London of gaslights and greatcoats—the labyrinthine city that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins described. The language is deliciously Victorian, a pastiche that is always just present enough for flavor but never overpowering enough to distract. And like Quincunx, The Meaning of Night reads like one of the “sensation novels” that Dickens himself might have written, had he the benefit of modern noir sensibility, pacing, and psychological insight while retaining his flair for character and atmosphere.

The story can best be described as, well, Dickensian. There are all the diabolical narrative twists one would expect in a tale of hidden identity, questions of inheritance surrounding a magnificent manor and a considerable fortune, and, of course, revenge. The drive is relentless and the tale is absolutely a page-turner. There are secrets a plenty—some obvious enough, some truly shocking, all earned. But beneath them all, there are deeper levels to explore here. The Meaning of Night is more than a Victorian mystery thriller—it is an unforgettable portrait of psychological obsession, and it is an unrelenting, unflinching exploration of the darkest reaches of the human soul.

The story is compelling, but the most fascinating elements are the characters. None of them are perfect; in fact, most of them are barely sympathetic. Only the most minor bit players are more or less who they seem to be, and not even all of them can be reliably depended upon not to wear a mask or two. Few are entirely innocent in the revealing light of day—the one who comes closest dies quickly; his death is the one referred to in the opening sentence. The next closest is a prostitute. The rest exist somewhere between twilight and the darkness of night. Even the beautiful Emily Carteret, object of the narrator’s obsession and sufferer of a traumatic loss, is very possibly carrying on at least two secret affairs. The rest of her secrets? Enough to say they’ll keep you turning the pages late into the night.

Worst of all, though, is the narrator himself. The narrator is told bluntly at one point to “trust no one.” We’d all do well to bear this in mind, too. Cox raises the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new level. Edward Glyver, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is no heart-of-gold rogue, and certainly no Victorian gentleman hero, even though he comports himself with gentlemanly charm and chivalric courtesy. We know from the opening line that he is capable of unspeakable violence. We learn quickly that he is an accomplished liar. In fact, one of his casual actions may have sent an innocent man to the gallows. More, he shows hints of seeming madness—he is so accused more than once—and is a regular user of both alcohol and opium. Unreliable? Yeah, I’d say so.

But despite the fact that we have, at best, little reason to feel any sympathy at all for Edward Glyver, or even to accept his account of events, Cox’s skill is such that we can’t help but feel for him. We want him to succeed, to achieve his revenge, and claim what is “rightfully” his. In spite of ourselves, we like him. Even—maybe especially—when we really, really don’t want to. Whether we can trust him or not, his is a soul in torment. Is his confession enough to earn him some manner of peace or redemption? That’s a hard question, one to ponder long after the last page is turned. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Cox has written a sequel, The Glass of Time, one that’s already skipped ahead to the top of my ponderously high “to be read” pile. It’s a stand-alone novel, but from what I can tell from the cover blurb, it seems to deal with some of the consequences of Glyver’s actions. I can’t wait.

Update: I’ve just learned that Michael Cox passed away from cancer in 2009. These two books are all we’ll see from him. Our loss. Rest in peace, sir.

If you liked this review and if you don’t mind, would you please consider using the links below to help spread the word? I’d be grateful.

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