The Lights of Prague (2021) is Nicole Jarvis’s first novel. It’s set in 1868 Prague, filled with pijavica* — vampires — and other magical creatures. Fighting the pijavica are the lamplighters, whose cover job is to go around lighting the new gas streetlamps in the city. Domek Myska is a lamplighter, apprenticed to an irascible alchemist. Lady Ora Fischerova is a widowed noblewoman with a secret, who has started up a flirtation with Domek. A bold and terrible plan hatched by an upstart nest of vampires threatens them and the entire city.
At first glance, a story like this should be right up my street. Lovely prose, detailed history and descriptions of Prague helped, but ultimately, flattened characters and a predictable plot made this book a disappointment.
The most beguiling character of the book is Kaja, an imprisoned will o’ the wisp who falls into Domek’s hands. Kaja is mercurial, distrustful of humans, and bitter. He’s also powerfully magical. (Think “genie in a bottle” magical.) Kaja’s story arc and Domek’s relationship with him carried me through the many parts of the tale that read too slowly, were predictable, or where characters behaved inconsistently because the plot required it.
Kaja is a good character, and so is Sokol, a friend of Ora, a former military man also waging a secret war against the pijavica. Jarvis describes Domek to us, but telling us a male character has “broad shoulders” over and over doesn’t reveal character. Domek is a naïve follower, which would make sense if he were seventeen or eighteen, but he’s been fighting vampires for ten years, so I assume he’s closer to thirty. He hero-worships the lamplighter commander, which contradicts what we’re told of his own relationship with an abusive father, and that contradiction is never explained. In short, he could have been a layered, interesting character, and isn’t.
Ora is slightly more complex as she thinks about the various moral issues in her life, but her actions don’t show those conflicts. Ora commits the worst example of Behavior for Plot Convenience in The Lights of Prague. She invites Domek to the opera one evening. Ora does not like to be around people for too long. About halfway through the opera, she decides she needs to go home. Glancing over at Domek, she sees that the singing has entranced him. He is swept away by the music. Noticing this, about a young man she likes, she immediately tugs on his arm and announces they are leaving. Of course, she has to, so something can happen outside, but the action is selfish and nonsensical in the moment.
I love the idea of the lamplighters and their shadow war. I love the secret tunnels of Prague, and I enjoyed the book when Sokol was on the page, and I pretended that this was a Cold-War era spy drama set in the 1800s with vampires. Folkloric characters like the wisp and the Woman in White were exquisite touches. While The Lights of Prague was a miss for me, I think people who love beautiful travel writing and are new to vampires will enjoy it. I wasn’t the right audience.
*Czech for “leech.” According to the internet, in English it sounds like “pee-ya-VEE-ka.”