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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: “The Magicians and Mrs. Quent” by Galen Beckett

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I was about halfway through reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent when I decided to pop online to check out the reviews. It’s a rather irritating habit (irritating to me; I can’t imagine that anyone else cares), but I like see if every one else agrees with my own assessment. The first review I read (I tried to find it again to link, but alas, it seems to have vanished) offered this critique: “nothing new.” For the record, that doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion, but frankly, I can’t say I disagree. None of the ingredients, or few of them, anyway, are what you’d call groundbreaking. But then, it’s not always the ingredients that make the stew; it’s how they’re mixed. Sure, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is pastiche. But it’s very good pastiche. Outstanding, even. My wife and I took turns reading it aloud to one another, and we had an absolute blast.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a fantasy set in an alternate world that has strong echos of an England that would be familiar to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In fact, the author’s voice is a deliberate pastiche of Jane Austen’s in the opening chapters, and of the Brontes and even Dickens in latter ones. The plot certainly carries with it echoes of Austen and the Brontes: comedy of manners, a strong emphasis on marriage proposals, a gothic country house where the brooding but romantic master hides a secret, falling ill in someone else’s house, the entailed house, and couples carefully (and at times sadly) avoiding the “inappropriate” marriage. Not to mention a Dickens-worthy subplot concerning a young man of good family fallen on hard times and working as a scrivener in a counting house to provide for his frail sister.

The echos extend beyond plot: Beckett does a terrific job of suggesting the wit, atmosphere, and mood of his sources without merely mimicking them. More, he does it without ever coming across as stilted, dated, or musty. He strikes a pace and tone that’s decidedly modern. More, he writes complex, fully-developed characters that are of their time and culture—his women, especially, are strong and determined even a restrictive age that Austen would recognize. They are not anachronistically feminist or democratic, for example. But they’re not pushovers, either. They are compelling. Nonetheless, the structure of their society places restrictions on men and women of all classes, although to the modern reader, at least, the plight of women and the poor are more likely to make us cringe. Women, for example, are not allowed to perform magic (a story reason is given, but it’s a spoiler so I’ll avoid talking about it) but the lively, intelligent, and charismatic young heroine, Ivy Lockwell, consoles herself with historical study, thereby placing herself in a position to become a hero.

The cosmology in Beckett's familiar yet strange world is not like ours, and signs in the sky auger a dark future, creeping inevitably closer—and possibly tying in with the madness of our heroine's magician father.

Beckett doesn’t shy away from the sex and class restrictions of a society that reflects the England of Austen and Dickens. Nor does he use the tropes of an alternate fantasy world to sidestep them. Instead, he uses them to build compelling characters and to tell a story that’s truly gripping. He doesn’t skimp on the world building, either. While Beckett’s in Invarel is a mirror of Austen-era London, it has a cosmology that is utterly unique, and a subtle, creeping mythology that as unique and delicious as anything in, say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. His descriptions are vivid and lovely to read—especially his word-paintings of the shadowy underbelly of the Illusionists shows on mysterious Durrow Street, or the streets and alleys were dark-clad highway men prowl, or the taverns and coffee houses where students and intellectuals question authority in whispered tones.

I should say something about the story, although it’s not really one that lends itself to a paragraph. Our heroine, Ivy Lockwell, is the unmarried daughter of a family stricken with poverty after her magician father went mad. She meets the aristocratic Dashton Rafferdy (I would have called him dashing, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) and, despite obvious mutual attraction, can not pursue a relationship. Rafferdy, meanwhile, has strange and unsettling encounters with a gentleman magician. Ivy travels from her home to become a governess at the country estate of Heathcrest, a Bronte-analogue complete with a brooding and mysterious Rochester stand-in. Soon, Ivy discovers an ancient story wrapped in the dark mythology of a sinister wood, still working its will on the world. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the lead characters! Mysteries, romances, magic, illusions, cons, dark prophesies, and even revolutions abound—enough to keep you turning the pages long after bedtime.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is complex, but the pace is relentless, the story gripping, and the characters unforgettable. It’s a page turner with smarts and depth, and its a terrific, truly fun read. I hope you’ll give it a try.

One sequel, The House on Durrow Street, has already been published, and another is coming. I can’t wait.

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Book Review: Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom

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Just last night, my wife Carol and I discovered something nifty that we didn’t know we could do with our iPhones. That wasn’t the first time that’s happened — almost every week, we’re learning something new about our latest gadgets and toys. Er, I mean tools of our trade. That’s it.

But it seems like for everything that’s learned, something is lost. It makes me a little sad to think of the gems of knowledge, once deemed critical, that are now relegated to the dusty attics of our brains reserved for trivia until, at last, they vanish forever.

That’s why I was delighted to discover Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom at my beloved Blue Elephant Book Shop in Decatur. Want to know how to send or read smoke signals? Looking for the Christmas traditions our ancestors enjoyed? Or maybe how to navigate with old-school maritime instruments? Well, likely not, I suppose. But anyway, you’ll find all that, and more, in this treasure chest assembled by authors Una McGovern and Paul Jenner. You’ll even find a section on letter writing, another gentle art vanishing in the age of instant communication. I found the letter writing section especially fascinating. I now want to go out and buy sealing wax with a custom seal, fine paper, and scented ink. If I can’t find the scented ink, no worries. Lost Lore tells me how to make it.

The book is divided into sections like Health and Wellbeing, where you will find everything from time-honored cures for drunkness (plunge the whole body into cold water, the excitement of a git of anger, terror, or even a “good whippping.” Frankly, I’d rather stay drunk.) or headaches to tips on natural first aid and long life (eat sage in May and have a gentle temper). Other sections include Household (for example: soap making, laying a fire, dyeing, living thriftly), Outdoor Life (Working With the Moon and Tides, Seafaring, Foraging for Wild Food), Education and Knowledge (Using an Abacus, Using a Slide Rule, Using Mnemonics), and Socializing and Celebration (Celebrating the Seasons, Wooing and Courting, Making and Taking Tea, Predicting the Sex of a Baby, and Writing by hand).

Granted, you’ll probably never need to know most—or, franky, any, of this stuff. But it’s a delight to know that you can. And besides, life is uncertain. You never know.

In any case, the text is an absolute joy to read. The entries are consise but wonderful, offering brief but absolutely fascinating peaks into the past—not at its great events, but at its minutiae, the tiny details that made life rich. More, the book is beautifully illustrated, designed, and bound. It’s as much a pleasure to hold as it is to browse.

There is a wealth of knowledge that my great-grandparents never passed down to me. There is little need now to properly stack wood in the fire chamber of my kitchen range, alas. What they knew is all but lost. Nonetheless, I find it oddly comforting to know that the subtle and delicious details of their everyday lives are preserved, especially in so handsome an edition. I’ll browse through it often, I’m sure, during the winter months when the holidays seem to turn one’s mind to the past.

Co-author Una McGovern has put together a companion volume as well: Lost Crafts. I look forward to picking up a copy soon. Another volume, Lost Wisdom, is forthcoming.

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Throw-back SciFi in “Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck” by L. S. King

Read Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck

First, a note of disclosure: the author is a friend of mine.

L. S. King’s novel Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck began life as a serial somewhere out there in the Interwebs on a site called Ray Gun Revival. Ray Gun Revival is an online pulp, if you will, offering throw-back stories inspired by the Golden Age of science fiction, when heroes faced forbidding planets and space monsters armed not with phasers or blasters, but with good, old-fashioned ray guns. Not surprisingly, the stories there aren’t exactly cutting edge. What they are is fun. Refreshingly so.

In Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck, a cowboy and a space pirate team up when both are threatened by gangsters, shadowy government types, and an insane emperor. That’s right. This is a story about a cowboy and a space pirate. How cool is that? Happily, the book lives up to all the unabashedly cliff-hanging, popcorn-eating, silly-grin-inducing fun of the premise.

The science is plausible — something rare in Golden Age throw backs — and the world-building is closer to Star Wars and Firefly than to the art deco-inspired environs of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. No worries. The heart and feel is the same. The roots show a bit. Since Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck started out as a serialized collection of stories, the plot is not as tight as most of us have come to expect from modern science fiction. Characters that seem like the may become important don’t reappear, and heavies that seem destined to become major threats are dispatched much sooner than one might expect. In fact, my one complaint is the lack of a villain strong enough to be a match for our heroes. There’s no Darth Vader to tie the episodes together.

None of that matters. Like the movie serials of yesteryear, when narrators used words like, um, yesteryear, the emphasis is on moving the characters from one wild adventure to the next.

More, the arc that makes Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck work is the at first reluctant friendship that grows between the two leads. Imagine what might have happened in Star Wars had Luke met Han in that bar without Obi Wan and some urgent mission. Imagine them slowing coming to respect, and even like each other and they drift planet to planet, constantly finding new trouble to get themselves out of. The growth of that friendship is what keeps you smiling in spite of yourself and turning the pages.

A few story threads are hinted at but not explored—they are, in fact, left tantalizingly open for a sequel. And that’s just fine, because something this much fun deserves to be continued.

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