The Lights of Prague – by Nicole Jarvis (Review)

Standalone (?)

Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Vampires

Titan Books; May 25, 2021

413 pages (ebook)

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4.25 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Prague, 1868.

The quiet streets of Prague hide a secret, one that haunts these passages in the dead of night. Ancient and mythic beasts lurk in the shadows, preying upon anyone unfortunate enough to be out past sunset. And only those paid to bring light to the city’s dark stand between the monsters and their prey.

Domek Myska is a lamplighter—a profession both dedicated to bring light to the darkened streets of Prague, but also to protect its citizens from the evil that walks it. With the advent of gas lamps, the lamplighter presence in Prague has changed. While the lamps themselves keep the night at bay better and longer, fewer souls are required to keep this army of lights burning. And where there are fewer lamplighters, there are more monsters. With little to no backup, Domek is forced to rely on his own wit and skill to survive the night, with stakes of hawthorn and daggers of silver to help even the odds. But when he discovers a strange jar one night on the corpse of a pijavice (a vampire), the young lamplighter discovers there’s more renaissance in the city then just that of gas lamps.

Lady Ora Fischerová is a permanent fixture amongst the city’s upperclass, but an enigmatic one at that. She’s known as an eccentric widow—having lost her husband a decade prior—albeit a beautiful one who hardly looks as though she’s aged since his passing. That’s because Ora harbors a secret of her own, hidden beneath layers only won by coin and eccentricity. She’s a pijavica, but lives a low-key life for one of her kind preferring venison and pork blood to that of humans. But while she calls some humans friend, some others would only see her as the demon that hunts in the night. Enter Domek, and a mutual hot-blooded attraction between the two. Neither knows about the other’s secret, but with the way things are going, it won’t be long before they find out. And what will happen when the cards fall—will either survive to see another sunrise, or will Prague itself fall into eternal darkness?

For the jar, and its wisp occupant, Kája, represent a new weapon—a hope and danger both. But could these fortunes be reversed? And whom (if anyone) would Domek trust to make that distinction?

With an atmosphere drenched in darkness and steeped in blood, The Lights of Prague represents the best of historical fantasy, combining a killer story, deep and meaningful characters, with a lush if claustrophobic setting. The backdrop of 1860’s Prague was breathtakingly beautiful: a city on the cusp of change from fire to gas; a city drenched in shadow but clinging to the light; a city built on the ruins of another that came before it, with the beings of the night lurking within. From tight back alleys to gilded opera halls to the mansions of the elite to the slums of the Jewish quarter, Nicole Jarvis sets the stage incredibly well! If not for the strength of its characters, I’d say the setting was the story’s strongest asset.

Prague did not know Domek, did not need him, but his life was overlaid on the ancient streets in watercolor, the patterns sheer and impermanent.

But the characters are quite well done as well. Both Domek and Ora are well-fleshed, with their own history and motivations, intentions and ideals—so that while they may want in one another’s pants and/or gowns, they don’t necessarily want the same thing for Prague. And while the two may fall on the same side now and then, they definitely aren’t that way all the time. I loved their interactions—be they hot and heavy, violent, or even casual—and it was this that kept the story from ever feeling too weighed down or stagnant, even toward the end when the action-sequences sometimes threaten to override the plot. While Domek isn’t the brightest tool in the river, he makes up for it with his deep- and well-thought-out plans, his ingenuity and stubbornness. Ora’s just pretty amazing—no notes! But where these two are so strong, I found the supporting cast was a bit hit and miss. Some characters seemed deep enough to carry their own POVs, while others felt too hollow to be little more than set dressing. The POVs definitely carry the load, however, so there’s relatively little to complain about, story-wise.

TL;DR

1860’s Prague provides an incredible backdrop for any fantasy adventure, at least when one plays it up as well as Nicole Jarvis does. The city was resplendent, despite the story mostly taking place in the dead of night, where the streets are quiet, dark, and claustrophobic, and the atmosphere one of tension. While the story might get a bit iffy later on, the interactions between the two POV leads Domek and Ora provide more than enough of a reason to press on. Turns out, the characters are just as impressive as the world-building. Come for the vampires and dark atmosphere, stay for the romance, action and characters. Heartily recommended!

I’m not sure if The Lights of Prague will remain a standalone or spawn a series, but the ending sets up a possible future if the author decides to go down that road. Best just to read it now.

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #2

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; June 1, 2017

11hr 3min (audio)
381 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.2 / 5 ✪

British India, 1920.

The Kingdom of Sambalpore has grown rich off diamonds. But riches also breed resent. As a semi-autonomous entity within the Empire, the Maharajah is uncontested in his rule. But all things change.

When the Maharajah’s heir-apparent is assassinated on a visit to Kolkata, it’s up to Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee to discover why. The mystery leads the two into the heart of Sambalpore, and embroils the pair in the politics of the court. Within days their suspect list practically grows to encompass the entire kingdom. From a ruthless playboy now in line for the throne, to the third-in-line and his highly ambitious mother, to a power hunger advisor or a cult of religious fanatics, to a missing Englishman and the a secret so valuable it’s worth not killing for once, but twice—everyone’s a suspect. And everything is suspect.

As the pair of detectives get further embroiled, it soon becomes clear that while the former prince was well-liked, nearly anyone would benefit in some way from his demise. And the deeper they dig into the case, the larger the stakes get. It seems that very few people actually WANT Wyndham to solve the case, but as the death toll continues to grow, it’s clear that the murders won’t stop until the Captain does just that.

Some familiar faces, some action, and a really deep mystery await them—in Sambalpore.

The followup to A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil marks the return of Wyndham and Banerjee, as well as a few more familiar faces. While the Empire hub of Kolkata was left largely unexplored in Book 1, Book #2 instead chooses to whisk us off to an autonomous kingdom within the Raj, where tensions are higher, riches are flowing, and Englishmen can’t necessarily do as they please. Thus it’s more difficult for Wyndham to investigate—and easier for the kingdom to stonewall him. So begins a long and intricate (even sometimes convoluted) story to get to the heart of the matter. Seriously, there’s so much going on here that I started to get lost towards the end. As the number of threads exploded and the suspect list grew and grew, it’s really hard to keep a full handle on everything (at least, it was for me). But before everything gets too much, Wyndham is able to whittle the list down, eventually tying everything up in a way that somehow left me with relatively few unanswered questions. Questions that I suspect will be (mostly) addressed in the sequel.

The ending here surprised me. I mean, as I spent a decent chunk of the second half so completely at sea, that’s not really surprising. But, after my initial guess turned out to be wrong, my second and third quickly followed. When the end came it nearly blindsided me. I was waaaay off. But it wasn’t because of any information that was withheld, or sprung upon us at the last minute. It was all there—I just failed to put it all together. But I was listening to this while playing video games, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got overwhelmed. Not to mention the change of locale, politics, religion (it’s still Hinduism, but with a different major deity, and—I’m really not familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon to get into this), and tone. There’s a lot to keep track of. But if you’ve read A Rising Man you’ll be good. Mostly.

Annie returns in Book #2, though things between her and Sam aren’t the whirlwind romance we spent #1 hinting at. Something about accusing a girl of aiding and abetting a murder really seemed to sour their relationship. But Wyndham is giving it his best, so maybe they’ll recover. Or maybe she’ll run off an marry a Maharajah.

Again, I loved Malk Williams’ performance as Captain Wyndham, although his return to the series is a bit bittersweet. See, after this one, the very talented but undeniably different Simon Bubb takes over as Wyndham, and it’s going to be an adjustment—unless it isn’t. Because Simon Bubb is always the reader if you live over in the UK, but for some reason it’s Williams here in the US for two books. Bubb returns for #4—again at least in the UK, as the audio of Death in the East isn’t out in the US yet. For some reason.

TL;DR

An intricate, occasionally convoluted tale regarding the assassination of a prince, a kingdom whose future remains in the balance, plus the many, many secrets worth killing for in the Kingdom of Sambalpore. If you’re not familiar with Colonial India, this series does a lovely job of taking the reader back to experience just what it’d’ve been like to go for a visit—if you were an Englishman, at least. The religious and political tension, the ethnic tensions, the press of bodies, the heat and humidity, the unwashed masses—Mukherjee really does an excellent job of painting a picture of Colonial life. And death, for that matter. The mystery is more than worth the price of admission, as the twists and turns kept me guessing up until the end. I love how the character of Wyndham—and Banerjee as well—are evolving, and hope they continue to progress in the next installment, Smoke and Ashes.

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #1

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; May 5, 2016

390 pages (ebook)

11hr 37m (audio)

Goodreads

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

The year is 1919.

The Great War has ended. The British Empire spans the globe. Former Scotland Yard Detective Sam Wyndham has recently returned home from the continent to find the life he lived pre-war is at an end. All the friends he shipped out with are dead. As is his young wife, Sarah, to whom he was wed not two days before leaving for the war. With nowhere to turn, Sam soon finds himself in the gutter, addicted to the morphine they’d given him to dull the pain of his war wounds. After the morphine runs out, he turns to opium—a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.

A chance telegram saves Sam’s life. A few months later, Sam Wyndham sets foot on the Indian subcontinent for the first time. His new life as a Captain in the Imperial Police Force in Bengal to begin on the second of April, one day after his arrival. A week later, the body of a senior official is found in the sewer, a note in his mouth warning of a potential insurrection among the natives.

So begins an investigation that will drag Wyndham all across Kolkata (Calcutta)—from the slums packed with native Indians to the upscale mansions of the British Elite, from seedy opium dens to the jungles of the rural countryside. A son of the empire and a native son rub elbows in the Imperial Police, while an intoxicating woman split between both worlds may yet steal his heart away. From natives to expats, Wyndham must choose his allies wisely, as there’s no telling which allegiance they hold any more than whose pocket they may be in. The only certainty is that Wyndham must solve this murder and soon, before tensions between the Indians and the Empire boil over.

I stumbled upon A Rising Man while shopping for a Christmas present for my father. While I ultimately did not get him this, I ended up buying it for myself as it sounded so interesting. A historical mystery, A Rising Man does a pretty good job of transporting us to Colonial India—a melting pot of English “civility” and native “savagery”. With Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Indians, and more alike all forced together by the hands of capitalism, Colonial India feels like a caldera waiting to erupt. Abir Mukherjee does an incredible job capturing the atmosphere of the place: the tensions, the humidity, the jungle and predators and flies, the wealth and poverty all jammed together. It’s quite good.

The mystery itself toes the line between fascinating and convoluted, with so enough twists and turns that kept me on my toes throughout. While everything is a bit thick and murky at the outset, the waters eventually cleared enough for me to get a handle on everything as the mystery progressed. While I did call one major reveal very early on, it actually took me quite some time to figure out whodunnit in time for the conclusion. The pacing was a bit stop-start, but I realize that’s a tough ratio to hit, especially for a new author and in a debut series. While it’s not a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot calibre mystery, A Rising Man kept me easily entertained throughout, and guessing until the final page was turned.

One final note on A Rising Man is the issues it tackles. The story takes place at a global crossroads, where many historically rival cultures compete with one that is very heterogeneous, and used to having its own way. At the time it would’ve been one of the few places on earth with so many different cultures locked in a war against homogenization, as opposed to somewhere like Colonial America where everything seemed to just blend together (well, not everything, sadly). From bigotry to religious discrimination to who and whom its acceptable to love, the story is really set at a very interesting—if incredibly tense—time period. While it does an adequate job of addressing the tension between the English and Bengali people, I would like to see more of the region’s minorities in ethnicity and religion in later books. Additionally, I really would’ve liked to have more of a look into the caste system at this time—which is only rarely mentioned, but never focused on.

TL;DR

A Rising Man combines historical fiction with a complex and engrossing mystery with twists and turns enough to have me guessing until the very end. Though Sam Wyndham isn’t the greatest narrator, he does an adequate job of tackling both the investigation and the region’s tensions. He’s also a bit of git. But while you probably won’t buy A Rising Man for the romance or action, the mystery itself is more than enough of a reason to. All combined with a one of a kind setting that finds opulent wealth rubbing shoulders with crippling poverty and a melting pot of cultures, religions, ideals, and ethnicities, makes A Rising Man a great read, and a mystery you won’t want to put down until the last page is turned.

The Sam Wyndham series continues with A Necessary Evil, out since 2017. I can’t wait to continue this series!

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill – by Sophie Hannah (Review)

The New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #4

Mystery, Historical Fiction

HarperCollins; August 20, 2020 (UK)
William Morrow; September 15, 2020 (US)

346 pages (ebook)
8 hr 54 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to HarperCollins, Willam Morrow and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

It is 1930. Hercule Poirot is traveling by coach to the illustrious Kingfisher Hill Estates when he uncovers a murderer. Prior to the tale’s start, Richard Devonport had written the famous detective and requested he come to the Estates to investigate the murder of his brother, Frank. A year previous, Frank had fallen to his death within the Devonport’s house of Little Key. The incident was ruled a murder, with Richard’s fiancée Helen as the prime suspect. Helen has been arrested and is awaiting hanging, as the authorities are convinced of her guilt. But Richard is not as convinced.

But on the coach to Kingfisher Hill, Poirot uncovers yet another mystery. A woman is convinced that she will be murdered if she sits in a certain seat. To allay her fears, the detective switches seats with her. Putting him next to a woman that later confides in him that she herself has committed a murder. But when the woman disembarks before he does, will Poirot be able to find her again? And how can he solve a murder that he knows all of the details of, yet none of them names for?

This is all before reaching Kingfisher Hill Estates, where another murder mystery awaits. One that may be connected to the hysterical woman, may be connected to the self-confessed murderer, or may be an entirely separate mystery entirely. All that is certain is that Poirot and his associate Catchpool are in for a difficult week, one that they’ll never forget.

First off, Hercule Poirot doesn’t ride in coaches. That’s a thing—look it up.

As a fan of Agatha Christie’s original Hercule Poirot, when Sophie Hannah originally revived the series, I was somewhat dubious. But as we approach the fourth book in the renewed series, I figured it was time to give it a try. By book four, Hannah has had time to fine tune her portrayal of the Belgian detective. And she does a pretty decent job of it. But as I’ve mentioned previously, there are exceptions to this.

All in all, I actually found the book enjoyable, though it took me a bit to warm up to it. This is helped quite considerably by the narrator—Julian Rhind-Tutt—who did such an incredible job as Poirot, that I had to double-check that David Suchet wasn’t actually involved. While I had issues with the depiction of Poirot himself, the mystery is really quite a good one; enjoyable, challenging, interesting, full of twists and turns. As a mystery, I’d say it’s probably a 4+ star read. As a continuation of Agatha Christie’s classic detective however—it leaves a little to be desired.

As Hastings occasionally was before him, Edward Catchpool acts as a friend and narrator for the brilliant detective—one that, while he infrequently picks up on Poirot’s hunches, is most often in the dark. It took me quite a bit of time to warm up to Catchpool enough that I didn’t find him simply exhausting. He’s a bit of a dry narrator. I mean, Hastings wasn’t exactly colorful and interesting. He was English. Old Empire English. But Catchpool seems to be a bit more of a bore, in addition to being even slower on the draw. He is frequently behind Poirot in even the most obvious of deductions, though every now and then he has his moment. It’s done this way for a reason—to make Poirot seem more impressive and amazing. But while Hastings was a captain in the British Army, he was no detective. Edward Catchpool is supposedly an Inspector of Scotland Yard, so he really should be less hopeless.

Poirot just feels different. It’s mostly little things; the bit about the coach, the perhaps inflated sense of superiority. He doesn’t mention any bit of his history beyond that of Hannah’s last novel. There’s actually little I can pinpoint exactly. Poirot seems nearly (nearly!) normal. His ego, his methods, his attention to detail, his cleanliness are all on point. Combined with Cacthpool’s dry witticisms, it’s almost like the old Poirot is back. It’s like running into an old friend, but their recollection of history is different and some of their mannerisms are wrong. But they look the same, they talk the same, and more than anything it’s good enough to have them back that you don’t want to look too closely lest you be disappointed.

TL;DR

Like an old friend you haven’t seen in years, Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot looks like you remembered, sounds like you remembered, and is more than anything a sight for sore eyes. Provided you don’t look too closely. Otherwise you’ll unearth a slightly stranger looking Poirot—one that shares much in common with his predecessor, but is subtly different. Nothing too overt here, but his mannerisms, his inflated sense of ego, his peculiarities, his knowledge of and regard for his own history—are all off. If you take the mystery as it is, it will seem an interesting, twisting, and often exciting distraction from the world. But should you look too close, you may just find a doppelgänger masquerading as an old friend. Someone that has nearly fooled you once, but won’t again.