Fans of Benjamin Black’s detective novels featuring the 1950s Dublin pathologist Quirke might find themselves a tad disorientated if they’re expecting more of the same in the author’s latest novel, Prague Nights – unless they’ve read the blurb, that is. For the anguished, lugubrious Quirke has not suddenly decided to go on holiday to Prague. This new novel features an entirely new central character, and is set in the Czech capital four hundred years ago.
Benjamin Black is, of course, the alter ego of the multi-prize-winning literary Irish novelist John Banville, who has something of a track record in historical fiction himself. Indeed, several of the characters in Prague Nights have already appeared in novels published under the Banville name, and reviewers have commented on the fact that he seems to have a certain fascination for the city of Prague, having also written a non-fiction title about the place. Indeed, there’s been speculation that Prague Nights might even represent a coming-together of Banville-Black’s split literary personas. After all, the new novel brings together the historical settings of some of the Banville novels, and the darkness and murder-mystery plots of the Quirke stories.
The central character of Prague Nights is Christian Stern, a young man with a difficult background who arrives in Prague on a snowy night in December 1599. He is a self-confessed student of the ‘occult arts’, but leans more towards the growing discipline of ‘natural philosophy’. He travels to Prague with a very clear goal in mind, aiming to win the favour of Rudolf II, the Hapsburg King of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Alas, Rudolf turns out to be a tricky customer, more interested in his colossal collection of curios than ruling his rackety empire, his court a cockpit for intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and brutal murder.
Things start badly for Christian – on his first night in the city he stumbles across the dead body of Rudolf’s mistress and is accused of the murder. His fortunes rise then fall like a runaway roller-coaster, and he finds himself being used in a complex game of plot and counter-plot. Christian is an innocent, a young man totally out of his depth who relies more on luck than judgement in his encounters with a gallery of conniving characters. Most memorable are Caterina Sardo, Rudolf’s other mistress, a dangerous woman who seduces Christian for her own ends, and Schenckel the Dwarf, a character who reminded me strongly of GoT’s Tyrion Lannister.
In a historical note the author declares Prague Nights a ‘historical fantasy’, but fans of historical fiction will feel they are in safe hands. The author brings the period to life brilliantly in rich, detailed, evocative prose, whether it’s creating sixteenth-century Prague and the characters or slipping exposition into the story as smoothly as an assassin’s stiletto between a victim’s ribs. As he says, ‘real life at the court of Rudolf II was entirely phantasmagorical’. There’s a sly, weary knowingness about the voice of the story too, an understanding of how badly people have always behaved when they get the opportunity. Highly recommended.
Tony Bradman reviews children’s books for The Guardian and is chair of The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) as well as The Siobhan Dowd Trust. His latest book, Revolt Against the Romans is out now. You can win a copy, and more, in our July giveaway.