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Review: City of Dark Magic

City of Dark Magic, written by Magnus Flyte (pen name for Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch), is a fun, breezy mystery full of both vivid history and lurid supernatural. It’s a quick-paced little novel, by turns light and dark, serious and ridiculous, campy and straight-faced. Do not come into this novel expecting a historical mystery/thriller a la Dan Brown. City of Dark MagicWhile City of Dark Magic is undoubtedly well-researched and full of interesting cultural and historical information, it is also a romp through the Czech Republic with an unabashedly magical re-imagining of major people and events.

The story follows Sarah Weston, a PhD student focusing on music and the emerging field of neuromusicology. After her mentor dies while working on a project in Prague, Sarah is contacted to fly to Europe to complete his work. Once in Prague, she is torn between investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding her mentor’s death, finishing his work, and pursuing her own interests — both academic and decidedly not so.

Confronted with mysteries both old and new, Sarah must sift through the people and places around her to determine what’s real, a lie, a hallucination, or magic. The fabric of time is thin in Prague, and Sarah begins to find herself slipping through the portals (especially with the help of a mind-expanding drug provided by a dwarf that knows far more than he’s telling). Historical drama meshes with modern political intrigue, creating a panorama of suspense through the centuries. Glimpses of the past begin to provide insight to the modern side of the mystery, in which Sarah finds herself facing off against a ruthless U.S. Senator with countless hidden allies around the world. Agendas overlap, then clash, and it becomes more and more impossible for Sarah to determine who she can actually trust.

The supernatural and mystery aspects of City of Dark Magic are the strongest aspects of the novel; the love story subplot, while fun, is really dispensable when you get down to it. Yes, it’s exciting and very romantic-comedy for the American student to fall for a European (though raised in the U.S.) prince, but it also doesn’t add much to the novel or growth of the characters apart from random opportunities to have sex. As much as I liked this novel, I really felt like the sex scenes were thrown in purely for the sake of having sex scenes. And, while I’m all for some literary sexy time when appropriate to the plot, I just felt like I wouldn’t have missed anything and nothing would have changed had those scenes been cut.

My other major issue with the novel was the ending, which felt like it both came out of nowhere, and resolved very little. Of course, magic played a major part — but given the supernatural bent of the book, I had no issue with that — but it just felt all too convenient. It cut off one storyline without warning or subsequent follow-up, but left another dangling. City of Lost DreamsNow, I have since found out that there is a sequel coming out in November, titled City of Lost Dreams, so I assume the threads left unraveled will be pursued in the forthcoming novel. That does make me feel better, though the ending still left me a tad dissatisfied.

I recommend this book, but with the admonition that you don’t take it seriously, at all. Just have as much fun reading it as the authors seem to have had writing it, and you’ll be in a good place. Despite my reservations, I’m definitely planning on reading the sequel to see if City of Lost Dreams follows the plot lines that were unresolved in City of Dark Magic. I suppose that’s my bottom line: fun, interesting, more than a little silly, and good enough to get me to read the second novel.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Inferno

I am currently basking in the glow of smug self-congratulation. I didn’t figure out the whole mystery in Dan Brown’s latest novel, but I figured out where the characters needed to be — and well over a hundred pages before the protagonist, Robert Langdon, did. I suspected it even earlier, but my personal confirmation still came well before Langdon sorted through everything. High fives all around!

Confession: I do feel a tiny bit like I cheated, though, simply because this mystery was firmly in my wheelhouse. My specialties are Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance history, with a sub-specialty in history of the Crusades. Even more specifically, the disastrous 4th Crusade. No spoilers, but if you read this novel, you’ll see why I nailed it. Plus, on top of all that, I’ve even been to the place where I knew they needed to go. I have photos of it and everything.

InfernoPoint is, I felt right at home in Inferno. The novel features Robert Langdon, who Brown also chronicled in Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol. Out of the previous novels, my hands-down favorite was Angels & DemonsInferno is now a rather close second favorite, and it more than made up for my disappointment with The Lost Symbol.

The main plot of Inferno opens with Langdon’s mysterious awakening in Florence, Italy, after what seems to have been some sort of catastrophic incident in which he was non-fatally shot in the head. Langdon is suffering from retrograde amnesia, and has lost two days of his life. He has no idea what he’s doing in Florence, or why he’s carrying an artifact that doubles as a concealed projector of a painting depicting the levels of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno section of The Divine Comedy. Langdon soon finds himself groping blindly to figure out not only what he is investigating, but why. Along with a doctor who was treating him at the hospital, Langdon begins unraveling a complicated riddle centered on the famous poet Dante Alighieri and his enduring masterpiece, The Inferno.

Much like the previous novels, Langdon is a sort of academic James Bond. However, where The Lost Symbol veered too far into spy/action-hero territory, Inferno stays believable. Everything Langdon does has grounding in his background as a professor and well-known speaker and author, and the stunts he pulls — while impressive — are not out of the realm of possibility for any fit adult. Langdon focuses on the mysteries embedded in the poem and the myriad art it inspired. The number of parties involved in the hunt is large, and their allegiances shift more times than I could count. Hidden motives abound. There are twists upon twists, and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Brown yanks the rug out from under you by revealing yet another red herring. While I did guess the correct location, the characters, I admit, stumped me; the final reveal caught me quite off-guard.

I enjoyed Inferno immensely, and not just because the mystery fell within my areas of study and (minor) expertise. The novel is smart, fast-paced, and engaging. It manages to be thrilling both in terms of pure entertainment and the scholarly bent for which Brown has become famous. Each of his novels feels like a tour through the various locations, and I always come away with a vivid impression of the art, architecture, and culture of the novel’s respective city or cities. Personally, I think this is one of the best things Brown has written to date.  In a recent interview, Brown discussed his writing methodology, part of which is a focus on what he withholds from readers, saying, “A reader’s desire to guess what I’ve hidden is always more exciting than anything I can show.”

Dan Brown certainly kept me guessing, and kept me hooked. This novel is a continuation of the best traits of his earlier novels, and happily it purges the excesses that plagued The Lost Symbol. On top of the surface entertainment value, Brown poses some very interesting ethical questions, and draws readers’ attention to some serious issues that the world is facing today. Even after finishing the novel, I’ve been thinking — and thinking hard — about the problems highlighted, and the potential solutions proposed by the various characters. The novel ends without definitely answering any of the questions, so I feel safe in assuming that I’m doing exactly what Brown wants from his readers: thinking about not only the novel, but the broad implications of a pressing social issue. Kudos to Brown for both the novel and the considerations that I’m sure I’ll be mulling for some time to come.

Happy Reading!


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Review: A Discovery of Witches

I don’t really have too much to say about A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I read it for my book club, and it was alright, if a little clichéd. My first reaction: it’s Twilight for a slightly older audience. There are vampires, witches, and daemons. A magical book brings about a forbidden romance. It’s fluffy and it’s all been done before, but to her credit, Harkness writes well and infuses the novel with a lot of interesting history.

The main character, Diana Bishop, is a witch, though she attempts to keep magic out of her life, as her parents — two powerful witches themselves — were killed because of their magical abilities. Diana is an American professor studying in England, where she has access to more manuscripts for her research. One such manuscript just so happens to be enchanted, and once word spreads that Diana has uncovered the long-lost text, all the other magical creatures want to get their hands on it. Diana is overwhelmed by the sudden attention she receives from other witches, daemons, and vampires, and has no idea what to do about the book or the magical focus she can no longer evade.

Enter Matthew Clairmont, vampire. This is where the novel veers into well-trodden territory. Matthew is — of course — brilliant and beautiful, and irresistible to Diana, despite her almost constant irritation with him. Sound familiar? Yep. Thought you might recognize that. The love story aspect of this novel is predictable and unexciting. The witch and the vampire are attracted to each other, but they can’t be together. Diana’s scent is intoxicating to Matthew. He runs to Scotland rather than risk staying and drinking her blood. He comes back and, despite the obstacles and difficulties, pursues a relationship with her. Their relationship is fraught with sexual tension, but Matthew refuses to consummate it. (Seriously… swap out a few names and locations, and this is exactly the basic plot of Twilight. Ugh.)

Though the romance is horribly trite, Harkness adds a fresh element to the story in terms of the historical elements and the mystery shrouding the magical manuscript. Harkness has done a great deal of historical research, and has written two nonfiction history books before this novel. Her knowledge and expertise shine through in the novel, and in my opinion, were the most interesting aspects of the storyline.

Now, my biggest problem with the novel, as I mentioned, was the eerie similarity to Twilight. My second-biggest problem: Diana herself. I get that she isn’t secure in using her powers due to the violent deaths of her mother and father. There’s even a plot point that explains the weakness of her magic further. I accept all that. What I’m not so keen on is how prosaic she is for the first half of the novel, and then — because Matthew is soooo irresistible — she turns into a hyper-sexual woman. Both characterizations feel shallow. There are attempts at making her seem more complex and well-rounded, but they unfortunately fall rather flat. Throughout the novel, I found myself annoyed with Diana. I wanted her to dress better, act more confidently, and in general be the type of woman that would in fact go rowing on the river for an hour before hitting the books. The type of woman that had made a name for herself in academia. Harkness details Diana’s habits and professional life, but comes up short when actually giving her a personality with the traits that would lead to her accomplishments and hobbies.

The end of the novel takes a significant turn for the better when the romance is put on the back burner, and adventure and mystery take center stage. More characters enter the scene, and I happened to like them a great deal (for the most part). Unfortunately for me, the novel ends after only a few of these improved chapters; A Discovery of Witches is the first of a trilogy. I have yet to decide if I’ll read the subsequent novels, though the premise of the second novel sounds interesting (Time travel! Elizabethan England! Alchemy!). We’ll see what my time permits, and whether my inclinations lead me back in this direction.

(Sorry for the long delays in between posts. I’ll try to do better!)

Happy reading!

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Review: The Gargoyle (And a rant. As well as a book club.)

Things never quite seem to go as I plan them, especially when it comes to this blog. For instance, I fully expected to have posted reviews for two books — neither of which is this book — by now. Alas, I have not, mainly because of a book defect. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I was happily engrossed when BAM! Suddenly what I was reading made no sense. I read and reread, until I finally looked at the corners of the pages and realized that somehow, 30 pages were missing out of the book! Keep in mind, I purchased this book brand new. It jumped from 120 to 153, and let me tell you: the resulting gap rendered the book unreadable. I was very confused by what I had missed in the chasm of missing text, and I just couldn’t keep going. I emailed the publisher and Barnes and Noble, hoping to get a complete copy, but so far neither has come through. (Hyperion Publishing, I’m shooting a nasty look in your direction! At least have the decency to give me a response of some sort!) Hence, Deliverance Dane was grudgingly abandoned, at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, the first meeting of a book club that a friend of a friend had decided to form was fast approaching. We were to read The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. Since I had already set aside one book, I gritted my teeth and put aside The Hare with Amber Eyes as well. I began reading The Gargoyle, but very nearly stopped reading it just as quickly. The beginning of this novel is a horror story in which the main character stars as the monster, though a case could equally be made for his role as the victim.

Let me explain. The Gargoyle opens with a fiery car crash, in which the protagonist is burned very nearly to death. The main character, who remains nameless for the entirety of the novel, is very upfront about the fact that he ran off the road and flipped his car into a ravine because he was high on cocaine and literally drinking and driving; specifically, his intoxication caused a hallucination that he swerved to avoid. The bottle of bourbon he’d been swigging from only served as an accelerant for the flames, especially where he had spilled it on his lap. The man describes his car going up in flames, with him inside, in stomach-turning detail. He is saved only when his car tips into a stream, extinguishing the fire. It is too late, though. The extensive damage has been done, and he has third-degree burns covering his head, neck, and upper body. Paramedics arrive on scene and rush him to the hospital, where he will then stay for many months.

The burned man’s time in the hospital is educational and appalling. The treatments for his burns are as bad — or worse — than the original injury. His organs fail. His immune system stops functioning. He loses fingers, toes, and, most insultingly, his penis. This loss is especially cruel, as the man made his living as a highly successful porn star before the accident. He intersperses details of his life in the hospital with recollections of his earlier life as a child raised by two meth-addicted relatives, then a man whose body made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He bluntly discusses the sex and drugs that were his work and his lifestyle, and admits that he was a bastard.

At this point in the novel, I couldn’t really see where it was going. It was interesting, but didn’t exactly have a driving plot. And then, out of the blue, a woman walked into the burned man’s room, took one look at him and calmly said, “You’ve been burned. Again.” While the man ponders the meaning of this, the woman continues, “This is the third time you’ve been burned.” Thus, we the readers meet Marianne Engel. She becomes what the burned man looks forward to from day to day, and what the reader looks forward to for excitement and plot development.

Marianne tells the burned man a love story dating back to the 14th century — but insists that they themselves are the lovers of which she speaks. It’s impossible to tell what her motives are, as she truly seems to believe that she was born over 700 years earlier, as was the main character. Her historical knowledge is flawless, but the general consensus is that she must be crazy. The fact that she is a psychiatric patient at the same hospital as the man does nothing to help her case. She might be schizophrenic. Or manic-depressive. Or have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or, as the burned man conjectures, some confluence of all three. Whatever her issues, there is no denying that Marianne tells a damn good story and is a very talented sculptor. Naturally, she carves gargoyles on orders from God. Despite her many eccentricities, one can’t help but fall under her spell.

Marianne and the burned man begin to forge a bond, one which she unwaveringly insists is centuries-old. Marianne serves as the motivation for the main character to actually begin the healing and rehabilitation process. She tells him love stories from around the world and from different eras, though she always returns to the one that unfolded in medieval Germany — the one that she says is the two of them in an earlier lifetime.

Davidson seamlessly merges the stories Marianne tells into the modern-day plot, and both begin to emotionally engage more and more. I have to say that I was probably more fond of the medieval story than the modern one, though they coexist to the point of interdependence. The novel has excellent story-telling, though the pacing is occasionally off. The characters are well-rounded and likeable, even when they do crazy or cruel things. Davidson clearly did his research, as well; the literary and historical references that he incorporates throughout the novel are fitting to both the plot lines and the places. I also appreciated that he left the novel open-ended in a way that lets the readers draw our own conclusions, without feeling like Davidson copped out in any way.

The bottom line: I liked this book. I doubt I’ll read it again, but it was definitely worth the time I put into it for this read. Honestly, I never would have read it were it not picked for my book club, but I’m glad it was. More to the point, I’m glad this book club exists at all. I didn’t know any of the other women in the group before this first meeting (which took place earlier this afternoon), but it was a wonderful warm experience. I am so pleased to find myself among other people who happily carve out time for literature, and are open to books of all types. We’re a very diverse group in terms of backgrounds and occupations, but this just makes it all the more special that we’re finding this common ground on which to bond. I’m already looking forward to next month’s meeting, and the other members expressed the same sentiment. It’s great to be reminded that the love of books is still alive and well.

Happy reading!

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