The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis
In the quiet streets of Prague, all manner of otherworldly creatures lurk in the shadows. Unbeknownst to its citizens, their only hope against the tide of predators are the dauntless lamplighters--a secret elite of monster hunters whose light staves off the darkness each night. Domek Myska leads a life teeming with fraught encounters with the worst kind of evil: pijavica, bloodthirsty and soulless vampiric creatures. Despite this, Domek finds solace in his moments spent in the company of his friend, the clever and beautiful Lady Ora Fischer--a widow with secrets of her own. When Domek finds himself stalked by the spirit of the White Lady--a ghost who haunts the baroque halls of Prague castle--he stumbles across the sentient essence of a will-o'-the-wisp, a mischievous spirit known to lead lost travelers to their death, but who, once captured, are bound to serve the desires of their owners. After discovering a conspiracy amongst the pijavica that could see them unleash terror on the daylight world, Domek finds himself in a race against those who aim to twist alchemical science for their own dangerous gain.
CONTRIBUTOR(S): Pete Cross (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: Dreamscape Media
LENGTH: 416 pages (11 hours 45 minutes)
GENRE: Fantasy, Historical
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s), Bi/Pan Main Character(s).
THE LIGHTS OF PRAGUE is the story of what can happen when some think that the line between monster and human is intrinsic and obvious, and others see monstrosity as a function of action and choice. Lady Ora Fischer is in mourning for her husband, who died some decades before. She's been spending time with Domek, someone whose social status is very different from her own. She's unaware that he's a lamplighter, one of the people who patrol the streets to keep pedestrians safe from monsters in the night. Set in a magic-touched version of historical Prague, and THE LIGHTS OF PRAGUE specifically explores the connection between perceived monstrosity and bigotries such as queerphobia, classism, and antisemitism, continuing the genre's long-running engagement with these themes. What could have been a simple story of a pijavica hunter falling in love with a pijavica (vampire) becomes a much more complicated story, as everything from the Will-O-Wisp he meets to his own mother's history makes it harder and harder for Domek to keep thinking that the prevailing attitude of "us versus them and they are all monsters" has any connection to reality.
Prague is a city in the grips of change. Most of these developments are incremental, such as the lights being installed in the city to make travel safer at night. There are many kinds of monsters: those who attack people in the night on their way home; those who lead travelers off of paths and into danger; and those who require some ideal performance of humanness in order to acknowledge personhood. Twenty years ago, the ghetto was opened and Jews were declared to be citizens, but this declaration of their equality hasn't been able to erase old prejudices. People with a little bit of power (real or imagined) are slow to welcome changes which threaten their sense of privilege and stability. One of the lamplighters is a Jewism man who discusses his awareness that many of his fellow lamplighters still are unsure whether he's one of the monsters they should be fighting. There’s also a scene which plays out very much like transphobia, with a character, assuming that he would never be intimate with a pijavica, because he would obviously be able to tell what they are ("clocking" in modern parlance). However, by that point the reader already knows that he’s wrong, that he has, in fact, had many wonderful conversations with a pijavica. There follows a scene which plays out in the first half like a gay/trans panic scene, where after an intimate encounter he find out that something about his bed partner isn't what he assumed. This scene highlights the ridiculousness of his earlier assertion of his perception powers, and is one piece in a long arc of him questioning the definitions and worth of "humanity" as he's been taught to revere and preserve it. He also comes into possession of a Will-O-Wisp who's magically enslaved, and the more they interact the less he's able to pretend that's there's some essential difference between them which means it's okay to exploit them.
I like pretty much everything about this book, especially the way the other various plot threads weave together. The lamplighter and the vampire are pursuing parallel tracks of investigation, but have very little reason to think that they might be on the same side. Generally, I don’t like plots which revolves around continued misunderstandings, but this one seemed very natural and didn’t bother me. The story has a nice alternation between me and characters, so that it avoids dull moments and allows for some scenes to have partially alternating perspectives without changing locale. There’s a pretty vibrant cast of secondary characters, helpful and nefarious alike. There’s also a specificity of place and time without getting bogged down and details in a way that might slow down the story.
Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, blood, violence, murder, death.
Moderate CW for grief, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, confinement, fire/fire injury, terminal illness, injury detail, medical content, slavery.
Minor CW for antisemitism, classism, xenophobia, mental illness, suicidal thoughts, suicide, war.