15 Books That Capture the Magic and Mystery of Prague

15 Books That Capture the Magic and Mystery of Prague

Monday, 20 January, 2020

We love Prague because it’s brimming with stories. Everywhere you look, there’s a tale being told or a mystery to be unraveled… statues that stand guard on street corners and squares, benches with green dragon tails, buildings shining with murals and mosaics, spiky Gothic spires with chiming bells and cobblestones that clatter with footsteps, stone bridges that span the Vltava River.

Dozens of novelists have been inspired by Prague, and we’ve read so many of their books. These 15 are our top recommendations, guaranteed to transport you to Prague — past and present — with a touch of magic, adventures big and small, and emotions that will make your heart full to bursting.

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HHhH: A Novel - Laurent Binet

HHhH
> Laurent Binet

We could summarize this book by saying, ‘This is historical fiction about the assassination of a Nazi in Prague during WWII.’ But that doesn’t come anywhere close to describing what’s it’s really about.

It’s a deep dive into the 1942 attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich, a.k.a., the Butcher of Prague. Our heroes — Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš — train in England, then parachute into German-occupied Czechoslovakia to bring a well-deserved end to Heydrich. As the story of the assassination attempt — and its devastating aftermath — unfolds, the narrator name-drops specific streets, museums, restaurants, squares, and parks in Prague that bring us into the heart of the action. You’ll feel like you’re peeking into the rooms where these unsettling conversations and startling events took place.

It’s written like the memoir of an author writing a historical novel about the assassination — so we get the author as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The book is comprised of 257 chapters of just one to two pages each, so it’s an irresistible page-turner. It makes this 80-year-old story feel fresh and dramatic. WARNING: It is a WWII story, so there are some brutal descriptions of the Holocaust. {more}

I imagine clouds of crows flying around the sinister watchtowers of the dark Týn Church. Under the Charles Bridge flows the Vltava. Under the Charles Bridge flows the Moldau. The peaceful river that crosses Prague has two names — one Czech, the other German. It is one too many. — Laurent Binet

Prague Spring - Simon Mawer

Prague Spring
> Simon Mawer

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to accidentally get caught up in a dangerous spy mission, this is the book for you. It’s the summer of love, even, for a while, in communist Czechoslovakia. As tensions rise between Moscow and Prague in the background, this story follows the misadventures — romantic and otherwise — of two groups of people. There’s an on-again, off-again British couple — sort of spoiled college students — who cross the Iron Curtain on a lark as they listlessly backpack through Europe. And their opposite, a group of Czech youths, eager to test the boundaries of the Czechoslovak ‘socialism with a human face.’

Mawer writes with ferocity and authentic detail. His step-by-step account of the backpackers crossing a communist border is chilling. When the tanks on the page roll into Wenceslas Square on the page, your heart will pound.

While this story is set against a detailed background of politics and history, it’s full of life and humanity. There’s plenty of intrigue, interpersonal sparks, romance, adventure, and irresistible descriptions of Prague, as well as a cast of characters who will stay with you long after you read the last page. {more}

‘You haven’t lived here long enough,’ Zdenek said. ‘No one can live in this place for long and still believe in reality.’ — Simon Mawer

Goulash - Brian Kimberling

Goulash
> Brian Kimberling

This engaging novel reads like a memoir. It’s a series of threaded vignettes that illuminate snapshots of the city of Prague at a dynamic time: 1998, about a decade after the fall of Communism.

Our would-be hero Elliott is from the midwestern United States. He wants more than the ‘megachurches and personal injury lawyers and five square meters of television screen per household’ of his hometown in Indiana. So he takes off to Prague with a plan to teach English.

As you might expect, he soon finds himself amid a somewhat motley crew of Czechs and Amanda, the British girl who’s as sharp and self-possessed as she is beautiful. Elliott and Amanda explore the city, discovering its aching beauty, hidden courtyards, cobblestone alleys, and secret cafes. And we realize this boy-meets-girl story is really about falling in love with Prague. {more}

‘Pasts matter,’ I said, ‘because they make us who we are.’

‘No, actually,’ said Amanda — ‘we do that.’ — Brian Kimberling

The Woman From Prague - Rob Hart

Ash Mckenna is an amateur detective from New York. He’s exiled himself to Prague for a few months to escape the repercussions of previous misadventures in the States. Although he’s been lying low in the Czech capital, sticky situations seem to follow him like his shadow.

A stranger named Roman materializes and blackmails Ash into what should be a simple covert opp. All he has to do is intercept a package during a hand-off on the Charles Bridge. What could possibly go wrong?

Soon he’s going toe-to-toe with an enigmatic woman named Samantha — a total badass who can hold her own with anyone — and an assassin that almost puts an end to Ash. This is a riveting romp with double-crosses, a satisfying wrap-up, vivid descriptions of Prague, and a hero who’s in way over his head. {more}

I know I’m supposed to be nice to the pigeons because local legend says they’re really knights who were trapped in that form by a witch. — Rob Hart

The Riddle of Prague - Laura DeBruce

The Riddle of Prague
> Laura DeBruce

In this YA thriller, our heroine is a scrappy 18-year-old who gets caught up in an unexpected and surprisingly dangerous escapade. The story begins in 1991 with Hana Silna on a plane to the newly democratic Czech Republic. She’s on her way to the family homeland to reclaim The Rockery, their ancestral estate. What should be a dull experience — simply signing documents of ownership — turns into the ordeal of her young life.

She accidentally uncovers a centuries-old mystery, a riddle that involves a flask owned by the 16th-century alchemist Edward Kelley. Then her family is kidnapped. To save them, she teams up with the son of a U.S. diplomat and a diverse group of characters that could only be found on the cobbled lanes of Prague.

As Hana follows clues through Czech castles, torture chambers, and sprawling parks, it’s unclear who she can trust, and she must find depths of courage she didn’t know she possessed. {more}

Now! The Iron Curtain has lifted — ta-da! We have a playwright for a president, but how do you go about the gargantuan task of giving back property?… if you are of good Czech stock and can prove you owned property back in 1948, then congratulations, Miss Silna, you may have your house back. — Laura DeBruce

The Prague Sonata - Bradford Morrow

The Prague Sonata
> Bradford Morrow

When a musical score with mysterious origins — could it be a lost work of Beethoven or Mozart?! — is discovered in Queens, New York, a young pianist embarks on a life-changing adventure to identify its composer and to rebuild the life she’s lost.

Our heroine is Meta, a prodigy whose career was cut short by a tragic accident — a situation about which she, understandably, still has plenty of baggage. Distanced from her family, her fiancé, and even her best friend, she falls under the spell of possibility represented by the puzzling manuscript. Against everyone’s advice, she takes off for Prague to investigate.

As Meta pokes around the cobbled streets and narrow alleys of Prague’s neighborhoods, the story travels back in time, immersing us in the bitter legacy of two world wars and the unpredictable effect the manuscript has had on everyone who’s come in contact with it. By the time the truth of the musical score is realized, Meta has become a woman transformed, and the past can finally be laid to rest. {more}

[T]hey ate what was ordered for the table to share. Klobása, roast pork loin with heavy dumplings, a fried breaded cheese called smažený sýr, and what had apparently been Irena’s favorite dish on the menu, pečená kachna, a crispy Long Island duck served with red cabbage and potato pancakes. — Bradford Morrow

Prague Fatale - Philip Kerr

Prague Fatale
> Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is one of the masters of the noir thriller, and in his antihero Bernie Gunther, he created a character with his own code of ethics. The kind of man who’ll risk his own skin to do what he thinks is right. The sort of man you’d always want to have your back. The series spans the years leading up to WWII, the war, and the post-war period. Throughout, homicide detective Gunther struggles with his internal conflict: He hates the Nazis, but he’s very fond of breathing.

In this installment, it’s 1941, and Bernie has returned from the Eastern Front. His experiences in Russia almost broke him — physically and mentally — and his self-effacing wise-cracks come a little slower now. Back in Berlin, he’s been assigned against his will to the homicide department of the Berlin police. He’ll be working under Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague.

When Heydrich is named Reichsprotector of Czechoslovakia, he taps Bernie to join him at his country estate outside Prague to solve a murder. Bernie finds himself in an SS snakepit, surrounded by high-ranking Nazis, and in love with a femme fatale who is probably (definitely) the wrong woman for him. {more}

Bernie can think of better ways to spend a beautiful autumn weekend, but, as he says, ‘You don’t say no to Heydrich and live.’ — Philip Kerr

The Trick - Emanuel Bergmann

The Trick
> Emanuel Bergmann

This is the story of two people who never should have found each other, but become friends all the same: a precocious little boy from California and an elderly illusionist from the old country of Czechoslovakia. It begins with a Rabbi before WWII and ends in modern-day Los Angeles. What happens in between is the stuff of magic.

Our heroes are Max Cohn, the just-about 11-year-old who desperately wants to believe that spells can work, and the Great Zabbatini, a washed-up performer who needs to be reminded there is enchantment in the world. Max’s life has just taken a direct hit from a bombshell: His parents are getting divorced.

Determined to put his family back together, Max sets out on an adventure in L.A. to track down the Great Zabbatini, convinced the magician’s love spell will save them. This touching adventure story has so many of our favorite things: triumph over tragedy, unlikely friendship, found family, real family, a story that spans decades, and a sprinkling of sequins. It also delivers searingly emotional flashbacks to World War II and explores the ways that sacrifice and family shape — and save — our lives. {more}

“The act of living” Zabbatini said, “is in itself the purest prayer.” — Emanuel Bergmann

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon

This story has everything we love in a big, sweeping story: found family, lifelong friendships, heartbreaking betrayal, big adventure, small moments — all told through the graceful writing of Michael Chabon.

It begins with a thrill. Inspired by the magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, a young Jewish boy in Prague — Josef ‘Joe’ Kavalier — has his little brother chain him up and toss him into the cold, dark waters of the Vltava River. It’s both a daring act of innocent faith and a metaphor for the darkness that’s about to invade his country in the late 1930s.

From there, the drama amps up as Joe escapes the Nazi invasion and is smuggled to New York City to live with his cousin in Brooklyn, Sammy Clay. Thus begins a life-defining friendship between the two. This story soars through the decades and the boroughs of New York, capturing the energy of post-war America and landing hearty gut-punches to the feelings.

It’s a tale of heroes — real and imagined — that give meaning to our lives. As it explores the ways our lives meander and take shape as we live them, it pays tribute to the many kinds of love to be found when we keep our hearts open. {more}

At four o’clock in the morning of Friday, September 27, 1935, the temperature of the water of the River Moldau, black as a church bell and ringing against the stone embankment at the north end of Kampa Island, stood at 2.2° on the Celsius scale. The night was moonless, and a fog lay over the river like an arras drawn across by a conjuror’s hand. A sharp wind rattled the seedpods in the are limbs of the island’s acacias. — Michael Chabon

Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke & Bone
> Laini Taylor

This fantasy adventure story will take you from Prague to Marrakech, and some magical places found in the unknown in-between.

Our heroine Karou is 17 and multi-lingual, though not all of the languages she speaks are human. She has blue hair — it grows out of her head that way — and she fills her sketchbook with drawings of monsters that may or may not be real. Much to the chagrin of her best friend Zuzana, Karou also has a very unusual job that requires her to take off on mysterious errands through magical portals to other countries.

When the story begins, mysterious winged creatures are scorching their palm prints into doorways in cities around the world. On a mission in Marrakech, Karou becomes entangled with Akiva, an angel-demon. Once he turns his fire-colored eyes on her, nothing will ever be the same. This novel deftly weaves elements we love: suspense and danger, atmospheric settings, a touch of romance, and a gut-punch ending. As Kerou goes on her mystical quest, she’s also on the hunt to understand her past and know herself. {more}

The streets of Prague were a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century… It was a city of alchemists and dreamers, its medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies. Tall houses glowed goldenrod and carmine and eggshell blue, embellished with Rococo plasterwork and capped in roofs of uniform red. Baroque cupolas were the soft green of antique copper, and Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels. The wind carried the memory of magic, revolution, violins, and the cobbled lanes meandered like creeks. — Laini Taylor

Prague Noir - Pavel Mandys

Prague Noir
> Pavel Mandys

We love these hard-boiled detective stories, suspenseful yarns, and classic detective tales. Set in all of the neighborhoods of Prague, they highlight the darker side of Prague.

These are Czech stories written by Czech authors, so you get a strong sense of the Czech outlook on life. Spoiler: It’s darker than black shoe polish.

The stories are arranged thematically: crime teams, magical Prague and the supernatural, shadows of the past. Each category delves into Prague history, culture, and customs through the eyes of the marginalized — criminals, cops, informers, witnesses, and victims.

In ‘The Dead Girl from a Haunted House,’ a cynical private detective is hired by the patriarch of a carnival family to investigate a murder: a girl died in the haunted house at the carnival on the Prague exhibition grounds. Other stories reference the Golem, fortune tellers, modern drug dealers, and the conflict between old-school cops and modern technology. {more}

I watched Arnold’s scarred hand, bigger than that of the brown coal digger in the Mostecká Basin. It was scratched and scuffed like the hands of all carnival and circus men. These guys build their autodromes and centrifuges and circus tents and merry-go-rounds in rain and sleet. Their hands are as scarred as their souls. — Jiří W. Procházka, The Dead Girl from a Haunted House

The Lost Wife - Alyson Richman

The Lost Wife
> Alyson Richman

This story is a war novel. Still, it’s also pretty high on the romance spectrum, a tender love story that examines the various kinds of love that connect us to each other, all played out against the backdrop of World War II. It starts in Prague when the war has just begun, with a young couple who are desperately in love. It’s their first love — the most delicate, the most engrossing. But they’re Jewish, the approach of the Nazis is inexorable, and heartbreaking choices must be made.

As you probably expect, the two are torn apart. They live entirely separate lives until well into adulthood. Decades later, in New York City, fate carefully places them back in each others’ paths. By turns grueling, poignant, uplifting, and shocking in its war-related brutality, this story demonstrates the power of good in the world. That is sweet, indeed. {more}

“We wore that grief like one wears one’s underclothes. An invisible skin, unseen to prying eyes, but knitted to us all the same. We wore it every day.” — Alyson Richman

The Other City - Michal Ajvaz

The Other City
> Michal Ajvaz, Gerald Turner

Things get weird in this novel in all the right ways. It is 100-percent pure, uncut magical realism. Poetic and strange, this story brings to life a shadow version of Prague that overlaps the city seen by most of us, then asks the question: Which is actually more real?

The story begins when an anonymous narrator discovers a book on the shelf of a second-hand bookshop. The remarkable volume has a purple spine and emits a green glow. It’s written in a language he doesn’t understand. This unusual tome is the catalyst for his exploration of the other side of Prague — the other city — the one with dark, mysterious places and events that seem to defy the laws of nature.

Ajvaz’s words paint stunning images that propel you through the story. It’s a celebration — although an admittedly surreal one — of reading, of taking the unfamiliar path, of learning to truly see the wonders that surround us. One of the best ways to explore Prague is to wander down an alley or into a courtyard, to climb up a stairway or through a shadowy passage, just to see where you end up. This book is the literary equivalent of that experience. {more}

“I know who you are; I was watching television when they showed a live transmission of your duel with the shark — I was rooting for you all the way. I really envy you; it must have been beautiful to fight with a shark above the town at night. — Michal Ajvaz

Gottland - Mariusz Szczygieł

Gottland
> Mariusz Szczygieł

Polish investigative journalist Mariusz Szczygieł wanted to explore everything that the Czech Republic is and has been. This compelling collection of essays about fascinating Czechs is the un-put-downable result. The first essay is about the Bata family, and it sets the tone for the entire book. Written in short one- to four-paragraph chunks, it tells the made-for-a-movie story of a legendary Czech shoe-making family.

You’ll also meet other remarkable Czech citizens: Lida Baarova, who was the mistress of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Gobbels. Jaroslava Moserova, an expert in skin grafting and a translator who adapted 44 Dick Francis mystery novels from English to Czech. And Karel Gott, the Slavic answer to Elvis Presley.

Engaging, humorous, and surprisingly moving, this is one of those ‘Can I read this to you?’ books in which you discover bits so shocking or well-written, you need to read them aloud to someone else. {more}

This we know: in order to survive in unfavorable circumstances, a small nation has to adapt. — Mariusz Szczygieł

The Glass Room - Simon Mawer

The Glass Room
> Simon Mawer

This is cheating a bit because it’s set in Brno, not Prague, but it should definitely be included in your Czech Republic reading.

This well-researched and melodramatic (in the best way) novel is set in and around a modernist villa in Brno. Referred to as the Landauer house in the book, it’s based on the real-life Villa Tugendhat. All of the details about the villa in the novel are true, but the people who live in it — and the things that happen to them — are fiction… although many of the details around the events of WWII and the Communist regime are based in fact.

It’s the 1920s in Czechoslovakia. Newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer are young, madly in love, and optimist about their future. But one of them is Jewish, and they’re from a privileged background; this will be of dire importance later. They commission modernist architect Rainer von Abt to build a house like no one has ever seen before. It’s open and airy, literally a glass house that barely separates the people inside from the world outside. The glass also acts as a mirror, reflecting them back to themselves.

The foreboding atmosphere — of the coming war, of betrayal — give the novel a claustrophobic feel that neatly contrasts with the transparency and optimism of their home. This is a beautifully brutal WWII tale that closely examines complicated kinds of love, as well as secrets, family, sexuality, power dynamics, fear, and wealth. {more}

“Well, it’s too good to last, isn’t it?” says Hana.

“What is?”

“Everything.”

“What do you mean, everything?”

“The good times. All this. The world we live in.” — Simon Mawer

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain - Peter Sís

The Wall
> Peter Sís

We’ve read many memoirs about life behind the Iron Curtain, and this slender, illustrated New York Times best-seller packs more emotional wallop than 400 pages of text can.

Peter Sís tells his story through illustrations, concise text, and excerpts from his personal diary. The art — mostly black and white illustrations with vibrant splashes of color — appear quite whimsical at first glance, but look closer, and you’ll see the burdens of living under a dictatorial regime. So many red stars and flags.

But this story of Prague — which covers the period from post-WWII until 1998 — is not heavy. It’s sobering, sometimes shocking, informative, but ultimately, hopeful and defiant. The snippets of the diary from his youth are evidence that everyday life found a way, even under the constraints of Soviet-style Communism. {more}

“He was painting dreams… and the nightmares. The dreams could be kept to himself, but the drawings could be used against him. He stopped drawing and was left with only his dreams.” — Peter Sís

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The novel 'Goulash' reads like a memoir of an American expat's adventures in 1998 Prague. It was a dynamic time for the city, but some things stay the same: the pubs, the beer, and good, honest Czech food.
Soft light illuminates floor-to-ceiling shelves of gilt-spined books in the libraries of the Strahov Monastery. But it's not all Latin texts and antique globes: a narwhal horn and a giant crab decorate the hallway.

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