This book review was a pleasure to write, just as “Prague Nights” was a pleasure to read.
Benjamin Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. His book is set in Prague, in the winter 1599.
It follows Christian Stern, a young doctor with high hopes of winning Emperor Rudolf II’s favour.
On his arrival in the city, Stern finds a young woman’s body frozen in the snow-covered Golden Lane. It transpires that the dead woman is the emperor’s mistress. Yet knowing her identity is only the start of Stern’s journey — he is soon tasked with finding her murderer.
Trust and distrust are key elements in Black’s novel. Stern seems at times lost in the shadowy political theatre of Hradčany Castle, as alchemists, astronomers and mathematicians forever attempt to one-up one another
But as Stern’s stature grows through the course of the story, so does his confidence. And he quickly learns that others will prey on any weakness.
From Chamberlain Philipp Lang’s mischievous mannerisms to the brooding silences of the “Fool” dwarf, Jeppe Schenckel, each character makes a quick and lasting impression. Upon meeting Stern for the first time, High Steward Wenzel introduces himself like this:
“Do you know who I am?”
The trait of self-importance ultimately kept people alive in 16th-century Bohemia.
The book hauntingly captures Prague’s wintry setting, too. The snow seems to be perpetually falling; the biting air slowly suffocating the city. Thus, Stern often seeks solace in any morsel of kindness or hope.
The old idiom “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” sums up life in Rudolf’s Royal Court, and “Prague Nights” will be enjoyed by murder mystery and historical fiction fans alike.
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