‘The Lights of Prague’ is a lovely historical fantasy novel about a Prague filled with a secret monster underworld, only protected by the Lamplighters – men responsible for lighting the gaslamps around the city, and for fighting off the monsters no citizens would believe were there. The ending is a tad rushed and predictable, but other than this it’s an excellent, creative novel with insight into a beautiful city rarely portrayed in urban fantasy.
Domek Myska is a Lamplighter – a man who roams the streets at night tasked with protecting the city from the monsters who dwell in the dark. He’d rather be a mechanic, but his uncle can’t afford to give him a full-time job, and his family has long known about Prague’s monstrous secret. One night, Domek saves a woman from a Pijavica – a bloodthirsty vampire – and suddenly finds himself the target of multiple brutal attacks. They all seem to centre around a mysterious jar he took from the creature. Now, Domek must figure out what’s in the jar – and what the Pijavice are planning with it – before they seize the power to unleash terror on Prague and all its inhabitants.
The story is told from two perspectives – Domek’s, and a wealthy widow called Ora Fischerova, a woman fascinated by Domek – but also secretly a Pijavica herself. Domek is a solid main character – kind-hearted, strong, and determined – but he’s also infuriatingly stubborn, with a set of incredibly black and white morals. He’s a talented mechanic and fighter, but otherwise not the brightest, and his inability to compromise or see other sides of the argument regularly leaves him in trouble. Domek always wants to do the right thing – but he’s convinced that his way is the only right way. Domek’s growth across the novel is good, but his stubbornness in the middle would be hard to deal with without Ora as a counterpoint.
Ora is a far more multifaceted character. As a Pijavica vampire, she’s been alive – or undead – for hundreds of years, seeing Prague change from the height of an empire’s power to a smaller, somewhat forgotten city. Previously part of an exclusive vampire family, she escaped decades ago, hiding herself amongst the humans. She even found love and married one – but has now been left a widow torn apart by loss. Ora is a very damaged character who struggles with the loss and death associated with vampire life. She’s a glamorous lady, enjoying the trappings of high society – but also one with a great deal of guilt. At first, she sees Domek as a bit of a diversion – a plaything to seduce and then discard – but she finds herself more and more enraptured by his heart and unshakeable moral code. However, she has no idea that he hunts those like her – and that makes her conquest dangerous. Ora makes an excellent protagonist, with a surprisingly good sense of humour, and an interesting perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of immortal life.
The plot is clever, with multiple layers of mystery that are hard to parse out. Its reasonably fast-paced, with constant action and developments, but not so fast it leads to confusion. It also heavily features creatures seen less often in fantasy, like will-o-the-wisps – a form of sprite or ghost in European folklore. The ending does feel a little rushed – Domek, in particular, seems to change without enough time or explanation – but it’s satisfying, coming to a strong conclusion whilst leaving room for a potential sequel.
The setting of Prague works brilliantly. Prague is a beautiful city, and elements of its history and culture are evident throughout. There are references to the decline of empire, the uneasy coexistence of new Germans with old Czechs, and the resident Jewish population who have only just been permitted citizenship and still aren’t seen as on par with their Christian neighbours. Jarvis creates a real sense of time and place, with an insight into a fascinating and turbulent piece of history that works perfectly with her fantasy additions. For those who have spent time in Prague, there are also recognisable landmarks. I don’t know enough about Central European history to know how accurate the historical elements are, but they feel authentic.
Overall, ‘The Lights of Prague’ is an enjoyable slice of historical fiction with a brilliant setting and clever use of European folklore. The ending is rushed, but otherwise its a solid read. Recommended for fans of historical, urban, and paranormal fantasy and books with an exceptional sense of place.
Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC -this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 18th May 2021