I had never heard of Benjamin Black until I spotted his new novel available on NetGalley, but I quickly discovered that it is a pseudonym of the Irish author better known as John Banville. Not having read anything by Banville either, I had no idea what to expect from Prague Nights, but the title was enough to make me interested in reading it (note: the US title is Wolf on a String) – Prague is a beautiful city and one I would recommend visiting, if you haven’t already. To experience Prague as it is in this novel, however, you would need a time machine as the action takes place more than four hundred years ago, at the end of the sixteenth century.
It’s 1599 and Christian Stern, a young doctor from Regensburg, has just arrived in Prague. On his first night in the city he stumbles across the dead body of a young woman half buried in snow. He reports his discovery and expects that to be the end of the matter, so he is shocked when he is accused of killing the girl himself. Her identity is given as Magdalena Kroll, mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and daughter of his ‘chief wizard’ Ulrich Kroll. Stern knows he is in serious trouble, but fortunately for him, the emperor – a superstitious man with a strong belief in the occult – believes him to be a messenger whose arrival in Prague had been predicted in a prophecy.
Freed of suspicion now, Stern is given the task of discovering who really did kill Magdalena Kroll. It is a mission which will bring him into conflict with some of the most powerful men in Prague, embroil him in a love affair with another of the emperor’s mistresses, Caterina Sardo, and send him to the town of Most in search of the English occultist Edward Kelley, who it is believed may hold the key to the mystery.
Prague Nights is one of those books that sounds as though it should be much better than it actually is. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it at all, because there were some aspects that I enjoyed, which I’ll return to shortly, but it definitely wasn’t the atmospheric, exciting historical mystery novel I had hoped it would be. I was disappointed that it wasn’t really much of a mystery; yes, there is a murder at the beginning and we find out who was responsible for it at the end, but in between, our narrator, Christian Stern, makes very little effort to actually investigate. Things happen around him but he takes no active part and by the time I reached the end of the book, I found that I no longer really cared how Magdalena Kroll had died and why.
The writing style is descriptive and detailed with a formal feel which suits the time period and the descriptions of Prague’s buildings, bridges and cobbled streets and squares are nicely done:
I had often tried to imagine Prague and its glories, but the reality of it was grander and more gracious than anything I could have dreamed of. Past the castle, we stopped on the height there to look out over the city. The sky was white and the air was draped with a freezing mist, pierced by many spires, all of them appearing black in that pervasive icy miasma. Despite the wintry murk, I could see the river and its bridges and, beyond, the clock tower in the Old Town Square.
This wasn’t enough to make me love the book, however. To be able to love a book I need to at least feel something for the characters and unfortunately I felt very little for Christian Stern or any of the other people who play a part in the novel. That’s particularly frustrating because, in real life, Rudolf II and the members of his court sound fascinating, especially his son, Don Julius Caesar. In his author’s note, Benjamin Black talks about the historical figures on which his characters are based, explaining where he sticks to factual information and where he uses his imagination. As I previously knew nothing about 16th century Prague or Rudolf’s court, it was good to have the opportunity to learn something new, even if the story itself didn’t really succeed in holding my attention.
Have you read anything by Benjamin Black/John Banville? And do you have any other books set in Prague to recommend?