Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Report: Not as Advertised

I'm about to go on a massive reading binge to try to get through as many of the Nebula nominees as possible so I can vote intelligently. Plus, I think it's good for me as a writer to expose myself to material that my peers think is award-worthy, and it broadens my horizons. None of my novel nominations made it to the final ballot, but all of my YA nominations made it to the Andre Norton Award ballot, which might be a sign that moving into young adult was the right direction for my career. I've read one of the novel nominees, and I have to say that this nomination was likely more due to the author's reputation and status than to the book itself. There are a couple of nominees whose previous books I've read and was so-so about, and there's one I'm intrigued about. The nice thing is that they've made most of the nominees available electronically to members, and the book I most wanted to read was one my library system doesn't have.

There's a book not on the ballot that I want to discuss that I can't really recommend wholeheartedly, which means I have to say some negative things, but it's still interesting enough to discuss. I figure I'm in little danger of ending up in the same social circles as the authors, so I'm going to go for the gusto here and be negative about a specific book while naming names. (I know, shocking, right?)

The book in question is City of Dark Magic, by Magnus Flyte, which is a pseudonym for two authors (apparently the review editions contained some stuff that made it a Lemony Snicket kind of thing, where the manuscript was mysteriously delivered to these authors, but the actual published edition doesn't play such coy games). The title and cover caught my eye because I had high hopes that it would be the kind of "urban fantasy" I wanted to read, something more in the vein of Neverwhere than the half-vampire, half-fae outcast apprentice wizard/freelance demon slayer books that took over the genre. I suppose this book is closer to the former than the latter, but I'm not entirely sure I would classify it as fantasy. There's one (rather out of the blue) fantasy touch late in the book, but the "magic" is alchemy treated as science. It's really more of a chick lit-esque paranormal mystery/thriller. The cover copy and endorsement blurbs also don't do the book any favors. The parts that are accurate are major spoilers -- something that's revealed late in the book in what's supposed to be a shocking moment is flat-out told on the cover. The other parts are rather inaccurate and not at all what's really going on. Then there's the blurb on the front cover by Conan O'Brien (really?) that mentions time travel and tantric sex, and that makes me wonder if he read the book or just the back cover. There isn't any time travel in any literal sense, just the ability to sometimes have visions of other times. And last I heard, a quickie in a bathroom does not fit the definition of "tantric sex."

So, if either the atmosphere evoked by the front cover or the various cover blurbs appeals to you, you'll likely be disappointed unless you manage your expectations. As a chick lit-esque paranormal mystery/thriller, it had a lot of potential. I think I was mostly frustrated by the really amazing book I could kind of see around the edges out of the corner of my eye that wasn't quite what was on the page. The gist of the plot is that Our Heroine is a musicologist specializing in Beethoven who gets hired to spend the summer in Prague helping organize and catalog a collection of scores, letters and other documents involving the friendship/patronship between the local prince at the time and Beethoven. The heir of the former royal family that was ousted by the Communists has had the family holdings returned to him, and he wants to make sure it's all there before creating a museum for them. But there have been mysterious deaths involving people working on the collection, which may be linked to what appeared to be either mass murder or mass suicide at a charity event in Venice. There's a ruthless, powerful person who could be ruined if certain things hidden in the palace are found and a rival possible heir who would like to get her hands on the estate. And there may be something in the collection that solves the "Immortal Beloved" mystery.

I got caught up in the story and turned the pages quickly, so some of the thriller aspect worked (but it would have been improved without the occasional interludes of the villain twirling her metaphorical mustache about her evil schemes, which took away a lot of the suspense when we knew who she was, what she wanted and what she was doing about it). The American slacker/rock band drummer who becomes a prince when his Czech grandfather dies soon after the government reinstates the royal family and who suddenly is stepping up and taking responsibility is an interesting character. Some of the secondary characters are wonderful, like the blind child music prodigy and her dog, who wears a service animal vest not because he's a seeing-eye dog but because he's a retired bomb-sniffing dog, and can she help it if people see a service animal with a blind girl and make assumptions and allow the dog to go everywhere with her? And I like the Texan former beauty queen who's the expert on weapons, an interest begun when her pageant talent was twirling rifles.

But there was just something missing about the whole thing, like it was somehow less than the sum of its parts. I can't quite put my finger on it. The main character was kind of flat, made up of a grab-bag of traits designed to make her both brilliant and edgy, and they seemed to be avoiding doing anything conventionally romantic with the romance, and that may have been part of the problem. I didn't feel a real sense of place or atmosphere, but I can't quite figure out how that could have been conveyed. Generally, if you're interested in a post-Cold War romantic thriller with a few paranormal touches (something I'd bet is pretty rare), this might be something to check out, but it will likely leave you wanting a really, really good paranormal romantic thriller. If you want an atmospheric urban fantasy set in Prague and drawing on the city's rich history, you'd be better off with something like Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

And now I kind of want to write a paranormal romantic thriller, maybe something along the lines of Charade but with magic. Witty banter, exotic setting, brewing romance under a cloud of doubt, constant danger. Oh yeah. Good stuff.

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