City of Dark Magic
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Sarah Weston is a budding musicologist working on a graduate degree at Thoreau College in Boston when she’s offered a summer job at Prague Castle. Her task is to catalog Beethoven’s manuscripts and papersa dream job for a workingclass girl from south Boston who’s the first in her family to go to college. The opportunity is too good to pass up, even when Sarah discovers that her mentor and predecessor at the castle, Dr. Absalom Sherbatsky, died in a tragic accident. Determined to find out what happened to him, she accepts, joining a team of eccentric scholars from around the world who are preparing to make the noble Lobkowicz family’s heirlooms available to the public for the first time in a brandnew museum.
Sarah delves into her research, eager to make her mark, at the same time trying to discover the truth about Sherbatsky. Everyone is calling his death a suicide, but could that be true? Sarah is deeply suspicious about this story, especially when she encounters notes from Dr. Sherbatsky that suggest that the death might not have been intentional after all.
Sarah’s unease is underscored by Prague itself, whose eerie ambiance is steeped in centuries of defenestrations, massacres, political intrigue, and rumors of hell portals. Further mysteries arise: What caused a mass suicide in Venice? Who made a hallucinogenic drug that allows its users to see the past? What was the true identity of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved? Is a flirtatious dwarf really four hundred years old? What is the castle’s connection to a powerful U.S. senator? And can Sarah trust the handsome but surly Prince Max, to whom she feels an unmistakable attraction, even after a nighttime dalliance lands them in jail? Despite all of these distractionsand Prince Max is the biggestSarah wants to keep her head down and stay focused on her work. But when a suspected spy is found dead and there’s another gruesome death at the castle, she knows that more lives are at stake. It’s up to her to connect the dots and figure out the truth about, well, everything.
This rollicking, fastpaced debut from the writing duo that calls itself Magnus Flyte is the first installment of Sarah Weston’s adventures abroad, to be followed in 2013 by a sequel. Written in a genre hybrid best described as comedic paranormal suspense, City of Dark Magic is smart, sexy, and actionpacked, with enough twists and turns to rival a medieval European city.
Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. Howrey is a novelist (Blind Sight and The Cranes Dance) and a former dancer living in Los Angeles. Lynch is a television writer and former Milan correspondent for W magazine living near Sequoia National Park.
Q. How did your collaboration under the name Magnus Flyte come about?
We met at a writers’ retreat on an island off Cape Cod and became fans of each other’s work. When we got back to California, we started getting together for mini writers’ retreats at Chris’s house near Sequoia National Park. The plot for City of Dark Magic was hatched on a walk with Chris’s dog Max. The name Magnus Flyte is a hybrid (much like our novel). Magnus was a usurping Roman senator (not so different from our character Charlotte Yates) and Flyte is for Sebastian Flyte, Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful lush who, like Max in our novel, has a difficult relationship with his highborn family and the house they live in.
Q. What was the inspiration for this unusual story?
We were both working on rather difficult and nuanced literary novels, and were longing to write something that was pure fun both to write and read. That impulse coincided with a family member in Prague recounting the history of Prague Castle, more convoluted than any soap opera. Kismet!
Q. Although much of what happens in City of Dark Magic might be described as fantasy, this story is rich with historical detail. How much research did you do and how did you balance the true facts with imaginary scenarios?
We visited Prague together and filled notebook after notebook with true details and ideas of how we could work them into our fictional story. We read a lot of books and listened to a lot of music. Our goal was to have an interesting historical anecdote in every chapter, but to make sure there was enough highoctane action in the present story to keep things feeling modern.
Q. Prague is a powerful presence in the book. What is your relationship to the city and how did you decide to set the story there?
Chris has family there, has visited many times, and had always wanted to set a novel there. A city known for its defenestrations cries out for a murder mystery! Meg was delighted to explore its twisting alleys and vast squares with someone who knew the city because while both Meg and Chris are adventurous, only Chris is good at reading maps.
Q. As a heroine, Sarah Weston is particularly memorable. How did her character evolve over drafts of the novel?
We conceived Sarah as the kind of person we admire: confident, ambitious but never pretentious,
independent, comfortable with her sexuality, physically strong, and brainy (and with a great sense of smell). We finetuned her backstory as we went, putting it in contrast with Max’s more highbrow origins, but giving them something of a shared history. She’s not perfect (she makes some notably comic mistakes), but she keeps moving forward anyway, and when she’s afraid of something she acknowledges that, but doesn’t let it stop her.
Q. Your writing is loaded with references from the arts, history, and politics. What sort of reader did you envision for this book?
We tried to make the history fun, readable, and relevant to the story. You don’t have to know anything about Prague or classical music to enjoy the ride! We’re total knowledge junkies and learned so much while writing this, so we hope our readers will enjoy picking up some new facts, too.
Q. What is your process for cowriting? What are some of the challenges and benefits of writing with a partner?
We wrote City of Dark Magic in a relay: Chris wrote chapter one and sent it to Meg with the subject line “Tag, you’re it!” We set ground rules from the beginning that made it an intriguing game. One of the rules was that we couldn’t rewrite anything until we had finished the entire novel. So it was all forward momentum! When we got to the end, we spent several months reverseengineering our story lines: moving chapters around, combining them, figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and what we needed to add. Two brains always proved better than one, and we kept the egos out of it. The only thing that mattered was: Does it make the story better?
Q. You have developed quite a back story for Magnus Flyte, who “may have ties to one or more intelligence organizations, including a radical group of Antarctic separatists” and “may be the author of a monograph on carnivorous butterflies.” How did Magnus Flyte, the author, become such a colorful character?
We’re lucky to have a publisher with a great sense of humor. After we filled out individual author
questionnaires for Penguin, they came back with “What about one for Magnus?” It was one of the few times we actually wrote together in the same room, and it was like improv . . . we just kept building on whatever crazy thing came into our heads. Our hope was that readers would laugh along with us.
Q. This book sits in an unusual space, crossing multiple genres. What are some of your individual and collective literary influences?
We both emerged from the womb with books in our hands and haven’t stopped reading since then, pretty omnivorously. We have a lot of shared enthusiasmsfrom Nancy Mitford to neuroscience. Chris has always had a twisted passion for Vladimir Nabokov and S. J. Perelman, Meg loves Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley. We both love mysteries: Georges Simenon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. The list is long.
- Though the novel is humorous, there are some serious themes under all that fun. What are Sarah’s thoughts on the idea that some people inherit huge wealth and are considered “noble,” while others have to earn their keep, and how does Max feel about his inheritance?
- There are people from many cultures, backgrounds, and with various physical strengths or disabilities in the book. How does this book deal with stereotypes?
- How are the themes of loss, fatherhood, and longing explored in this novel?
- Characters in the novel have differing religious beliefs. How does Sarah’s time in Prague affect her beliefs?
- Sarah’s ambition puts her in the crosshairs of Charlotte Yates’s ambitions. How does the novel address issues of ambition?
- Nicolas Pertusato claims he’s four hundred years old. In what ways does the novel explore different aspects of immortality for him, for Beethoven, and for Sherbatsky?
- Sarah Weston is approached out of the blue to go to Prague for the summer to help catalog Beethoven’s papers. What convinces her to take the job?
- At the castle, Sarah is introduced to her fellow housemates, most of whom are there to do their own respective research. What do her initial impressions of the other residents tell us about her, and them?
- Sarah notices early on that Prague has a “vibe” (p. 55). How do Sarah’s feelings about things like “vibes” and magic change in the course of the novel?
- Who is Charlotte Yates, what is her connection to the Lobkowicz family, and what does her story tell us about the history of Prague?
- Dr. Sherbatsky is an important mentor for Sarah. What has she learned from him and what does his unfortunate death mean for her?
- Sarah is, by her own admission, a highly sexual person. Which qualities draw her to potential partners, and how does she feel about love as it is conventionally portrayed in books and movies? Do we judge female characters that are openly sexual differently than we do male characters with the same trait?
- Nicolas gives Sarah a strange drug. What does the drug do and what is its connection to the mysteries of the castle? What does it awaken in Sarah?
- What is Prince Max looking for, and why? How do his and Sarah’s ambitions at first keep them apart, then bring them together?
- Sarah and Max learn they knew each other as young children. What effect does this strange coincidence have on their relationship?
- Sarah ultimately discovers the “truth” about Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved. What does she find out,
- In the epigraph, there is a quote from Beethoven: “Of Princes there have and will be thousandsof Beethovens there is only one.” Why do you think the authors chose this quote to open the story?
and how does it change her feelings about the composer?