Christal’s Review – 2 Skulls – D+
I’ve got to admit, when I saw City of Dark Magic on Netgalley, I was lured in by the pretty cover and promise of dark magic. I thought I was getting a fantasy novel set in menacing Prague that would be full of magic and portals to other worlds. This book actually turned out to be more of a contemporary spy novel with some alchemy thrown in to explain a few things. Personally, I didn’t connect with this novel or its characters and couldn’t really recommend it to anyone looking for a fantasy or even urban fantasy read, but other reviewers seem to have enjoyed the book much more than me. I think it helps to know what you are getting into from the beginning instead of expecting one type of book and getting another.
The writing in this book was a little off-putting for me. It felt like I was reading a YA novel, but there were some pretty descriptive sex scenes that negated that notion. The writing just didn’t flow very well and the conversations felt especially stilted. The pacing was also oddly inconsistent; I never felt a sense of urgency until the last thirty or so pages of the book. I did think the descriptions of Prague and its historical landmarks were well done though, so the writing wasn’t a totally unpleasant.
City of Dark Magic had a strange and somewhat convoluted plot. We begin thinking that Sarah will be investigating the death of her mentor but that is wrapped up pretty quickly; then it seems to connect to Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letters, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Another thread begins with the American senator, Charlotte Yates. We are given her inside POV and she is setup as the bad guy from the get-go, so no real mystery for the reader. As Sarah and Max are learning about her background, the reader already knows everything so their reactions don’t have much of an impact. Finally, Max is searching for the Golden Fleece and that remains a loose end. The plot was just not very cohesive at all and many pieces felt extraneous. The alchemy and time-travel felt more tacked on as an outside “air of mystery” than actually central to the story. I am entirely grossed out by the thoughts that Sarah and Max were eating toenails at the beginning of the story in order to ingest the time-travel drug. Yes, actual toenails that had residual amounts of the drug from the original user. Not toenail-shaped pills, actual toenails. Yuck!
The main heroine is Sarah Weston, a doctoral candidate who ends up in Prague for the summer after receiving a mysterious job offer. I never really connected to Sarah and didn’t believe her as a “sleuth.” She seemed to learn everything by accident or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The fact that she used her nose to make judgments was weird as well. She could smell when she was attracted to other people, she could smell when things were fishy, and she almost literally sniffed out a bomb. These weren’t hypothetical smellings either; she actually used odors to make her decisions. It was more than a little strange. Her original characterization made it seem like she was a smart, no-nonsense kind of girl, but she made some really bad choices right off the bat that made it hard to take her seriously for the rest of the book.
Max was the main love interest, and it bothered me that other characters were telling Sarah she was in love with him after she had only met him twice. I don’t have any clue where that came from. Overall, Max was a pretty bland character. Nothing about him really stood out to me. Even thinking back right now, I couldn’t describe him to you for the life of me. Most of the other characters in this book also suffered from a one-dimensional characterization. There are many other scholars with Sarah and Max, but they all just blend together into an unimportant smarty soup.
The most intriguing characters in this book were Nico, an immortal dwarf, and Pols, a blind child prodigy. Of course we only got to spend a little time with each of them, but I would have been interested to learn more from their points of view. Nico is trying to find a way to die. He took an eternal life potion unknowingly and he has been alive for more than 400 years now. Pols is an absolute wonder on the piano but her condition has kept her mostly at home where she has become deeply religious and even thinks she can feel Beethoven when she is playing. I enjoyed all of their plot time immensely.
All in all, this book wasn’t for me. The changing characteristics of the plot didn’t do it many favors, and it seemed the writers couldn’t decide what type of story they wanted to tell. The paranormal aspects weren’t strong enough for me to recommend this to fantasy readers, and the mystery wasn’t developed well enough for me to recommend this to readers of thrillers or spy novels. I would maybe recommend this to adult YA readers, but only with the caveat that it is more spy games than fantasy.
Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books for providing an ARC copy of this book!
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