I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Congress of Secrets by Stephanie Burgis
Published by Pyr Books on November 1 2016
Genres: historical, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: Another winning story from Burgis, filled with political schemes, historical intrigue and plenty of secrets.
I really enjoyed Burgis’ Masks and Shadows earlier this year, and so I didn’t hesitate at all when I was offered a review copy of Congress of Secrets. Burgis sets her latest in 1814 Vienna, during the famous Congress of Vienna, a political gathering of important European leaders who are looking to move forward after the defeat of Napoleon. While Masks and Shadows had more of a lighthearted feel to it, with opera as the main focus of the story, Congress of Secrets is decidedly more political in nature. Burgis has a solid background in history, and she’s obviously spent a great deal of time doing research for her book. While historical fiction isn’t my first choice for reading material, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Like she did with her first book, the author seamlessly weaves history and story together, and rarely did I feel as if I were sitting in a stuffy classroom listening to a history lecture.
The story goes back and forth among three main characters, who have all come to Vienna to attend the Congress for one reason or another. Michael Steinhüller left Vienna as a boy, after a tragedy separated him from his best friend Karolina. Peter Riesenbeck is determined to gain fame and fortune by bringing his theatrical company to Vienna; and Lady Caroline Wyndham has returned to Vienna as a remade woman, set on revenge against the man who kidnapped her father many years ago. As their paths inevitably cross, secrets about the Emperor of Austria and his terrible crimes of the past come to light, and each character finds themselves in terrible danger.
Caroline is hiding a dangerous secret of her own, and if her real identity is revealed it could cost her dearly. But she will do anything to discover what’s become of her father, even if it means facing the men who ruined her life.
Not only does Burgis bring the Congress of Vienna to life, but she’s got the rhythm of the language down pat as well. I was constantly reminded of Pride and Prejudice while reading Congress of Secrets, as the characters speak in the same formal and flowery voices as Jane Austen’s characters. (In fact, Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813 so this doesn’t surprise me at all!) She also knows how to combine real-life historical figures with fictional characters, a talent that makes her story all the more interesting.
I always love a good “secret identity” story, and this was a great one. Three of the main characters are all pretending to be someone else, which makes for a very twisty plot. We find out very quickly that Michael and Caroline know each other from many years ago, and that they parted on bad terms. When Michael recognizes Caroline at the palace, despite the passage of time as well as her attempt to disguise herself, you know there is going to be plenty of tension and sparks flying between the two. Even though I was expecting a romance, I loved that Burgis doesn’t make it the focus of her story. Michael and Caroline have plenty of bad feelings and history to sift through before they acknowledge their feelings for each other, and despite the inevitable misunderstandings and “I hate you, I love you” scenarios that make up your typical romance, I found their relationship refreshing.
The story has only a small fantastical element to it, but I thought Burgis did a better job this time of making that element part of the story. (In Masks and Shadows, I mentioned in my review that she could have left the fantastical element out altogether, and it wouldn’t have affected my enjoyment of the story). In Congress of Secrets, alchemy plays an important part. Not only does it give Caroline a reason for her vengeful mission against the Emperor, but it adds a wonderful element of danger and unpredictability to the story. I don’t want to give anything away, but it was very well done. You’ll just have to read the book for yourself to see what I’m talking about!
Above all, this is a tale about plots and schemes, and each character is invested in making sure things go just right so that their plots and schemes will work out in the end. Because of this I was a wreck while reading this story! Burgis must have a complex system of plotting out her story in order to make all the pieces come together, and for the most part it worked really well. There were several times I thought things worked out just a little too conveniently for the characters, but it was all great fun.
If you love European history, intrigue and romance, you must check out Stephanie Burgis’ books. And because these aren’t part of a series, you can start with either one.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.