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Review: City of Lost Dreams

City of Lost Dreams(Warning: Contains minor spoilers.)

I recently read Magnus Flyte’s second novel, City of Lost Dreams, the sequel to City of Dark Magic (for which you can read a review here). It’s fluffy and fun, but not quite as sharp as its predecessor. The story picks up over a year after the events of the first novel, and Sarah Weston finds herself once again in Prague, visiting Nico, her now-ex-boyfriend Prince Max,  and her friend Pollina, who is dying of a disease that no doctor can quite pin down. Sarah is there to try and help Pollina; she pursues answers from a brilliant doctor in Vienna while Nico explores older alchemical cures that might be applicable to Pollina’s case. City of Dark Magic

As in City of Dark Magic, modern action combines with historical fact and fiction, as the past comes to life in both Prague and Vienna. As Pollina’s friends become more and more desperate to save the young musical prodigy, the odd events that seem to constantly unfold around Sarah, Nico, and Max become stranger and stranger. This is the best aspect of the novel, in my opinion: the mystery of how and why these occurrences keep piling up, and how they are all related. The reader is just as confused as the characters for much of the novel, and the eventual resolution does tie everything together in interesting, albeit occasionally vaguely unsatisfying, ways.

While I enjoyed the mystery/adventure aspects of the story, there were features that stretched my patience as a reader. The narrative is a bit jerky and disjointed, especially with the addition of full chapters from another book (an in-world manuscript being written by one of the characters). Though the manuscript chapters did eventually lead to an explanation of some of the mysterious events, I didn’t like the style or tone of them, nor did I appreciate being forcibly yanked out of the main storyline with no explanation. The authorial voice grated on me for some reason; I think it was largely because I didn’t feel that the tone/syntax/word choice was at all appropriate for the character, given their background and personal history. Thankfully, the irritating voice is strictly confined to these “other” chapters. As I said, it does contribute to understanding events later on, but I just didn’t enjoy the asides when they came up every so often.

As with the previous novel, City of Lost Dreams requires an enormous willingness to suspend disbelief. I don’t know why, but I had a hard time with that in this novel. I think it is in part because City of Lost Dreams combines genres and expectations in a way that few other books do. While this makes it unique, to be sure, it also stretches the limits of what I understand and am willing to tolerate in terms of the rules of the novels’ universe. I can do sci-fi and fantasy — in fact I enjoy both very much — but I like the rules of the world to be more or less strightforward. Here, I felt like to many things were fluid that ought to have been static. However, despite my occasional frustration or skepticism, I did enjoy the novel overall.

I’m interested to see whether a third novel will eventually join the series, as City of Lost Dreams left the storyline open to continue should the authors wish to do so. As of right now, I’m mostly sure that I would read another novel in this vein, but I think it would have to make a pretty strong case to get me to stick with a series beyond that.

Final call: a fun book, more than a little odd. Not a must-read, but recommended for people who enjoyed City of Dark Magic and want either more adventures and/or more closure.

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: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Douglas Adams (may he rest in peace) is probably best known for his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series, but I have just finished an unrelated but equally funny and imaginative novel by this talented author. Despite being written in 1987, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency seems completely at home in 2012. It’s a mystery, with equal parts dark humor and legitimate scientific and literary references. Not all the humor is dark, though; plenty of the ridiculous situations that arise throughout the book are funny in that airily outrageous way that seems unique to Adams’ work.

I have to admit up front: I had very little notion of what was going on for roughly the first fifty pages of this novel. It was amusing, but I couldn’t tell how things were connected or where the plot was going. We are introduced to a somewhat faulty Electric Monk, a horse with an inner monologue, fed-up cellist Susan Way, computer and music enthusiast Richard MacDuff, and Reg, a professor with a penchant for magic tricks. All of these characters eventually prove to be related to one another, though Adams at first explains only how Reg and Richard know one another. Their dinner together at the fictional St. Cedd’s College is the starting point for what becomes the main story, though much happens behind the scenes that the reader will not know about, much less understand, for a hundred pages or so.

The lack of understanding is irritating at times, to say the least. The only comfort as a reader is the knowledge that the aforementioned main character Richard is equally in the dark. Of course, as we the readers become less befuddled, his predicament on page becomes worse. Actually, Richard’s shared confusion is not the only comfort: there is also the comedy and promise of a revelation to come.  Adams had many skills, among them the ability to hold readers’ interest even when nothing seems clear and almost any other book would be abandoned. His humor cuts through every scene, even those dealing with a most bizarre murder.

All of the wild strands begin to come together courtesy of Dirk Gently, holistic detective. Though seemingly absent-minded and genial, Dirk possesses a keen investigative skill and a willingness — even enthusiasm — for bending the rules. Dirk is also rumored to be capable of paranormal feats, though he himself much denies these claims. His denials, however, only serve to fan the flames and increase his notoriety. This puts Dirk in the perfect position to unravel the mysterious events, with Richard and Reg as more or less willing co-conspirators and investigators. With the three men on the case, things begin to come together and make sense (or as much sense as they ever do in the delightfully quirky Adams universe).

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a fun little oddball of a book, a world apart from its Hitchhiker’s Guide brethren but definitely part of the same family. Fans of Douglas Adams will definitely enjoy this read. Those unfamiliar with Adams’s work will likely be fans by the halfway point of this novel. Enjoy a little ridiculous escapism!

Happy reading!

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