Congress of Secrets by Stephanie Burgis
In 1814, the four countries that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte held a congress in Vienna, determined to establish a new balance of power among the European nations. It was a contentious congress filled with intrigue and realpolitik, but at least those real-life diplomats and leaders weren’t contending with shadowy magic, the way Stephanie Burgis’ characters are in her alternate history fantasy Congress of Secrets (2016).
Lady Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy British widow, has come to Vienna, merely to observe the historical undertaking… and perhaps, she’s hinted, offer a little money to the Austrian treasury. In reality, Caroline’s mission is very different; it’s deeply personal and very dangerous. Caroline isn’t even her name. As she navigates the diplomatic minefield that is 1814 Vienna, she must fight her own emotions and her memories of the torture she experienced here as a child — and with that torture came something worse and more powerful.
Michael Steinhuller is a confidence artist, taking a gamble by coming to Vienna to pull off one last big con, and then, he hopes, retire. He uses an acting troupe directed by Peter Riesenbeck, a naïve young impresario, to smuggle him into Vienna, a city Michael left as a boy, huddled in the back of a butcher’s cart, hiding from the dreaded secret police, and abandoning the only two people he cared about.
To achieve their goals, both Michael and Caroline must fool the Emperor Francis, something that would not be that hard to do except for the terrifying Count Pergen, the emperor’s close advisor and the true head of the secret police. Pergen persuaded a previous emperor to destroy Vienna’s well-known tolerance for debate and discussion and its open press. He encourages Francis to tighten his control, imprisoning anyone who disagrees even mildly with the emperor. The more people held prisoner, the better, because elemental entity that lives inside Pergen feeds on human energy, and where better to get that than from prisoners — or their children?
Burgis calls the kind of magic practiced by Count Pergen and others “alchemy,” which still jars me. It doesn’t match any aspect of alchemy that I’m familiar with. It seems more like elemental magic. I finally settled in, though and accepted her use of the word. She fills Congress of Secrets with witty dialogue and lots of descriptions of beautiful buildings and spectacles, gorgeous, luxurious clothing; rutted and smelly streets, back rooms, beer gardens and Vienna’s famous coffee houses. Burgis studied this time-period in Vienna thoroughly, and loving detail brings the city to life. The plot is pretty fast-paced even if Caroline’s quest seems unlikely from very early on, and the suspense works on several levels. Caroline, for instance, must not only try to manipulate the emperor; she works to avoid Count Pergen and must deal with her own apprentice, whose ambition and attraction to Caroline are becoming a problem. And then, of course, there is Michael, whose very presence threatens to upset every apple cart in Vienna.
Congress of Secrets recycles many of the plot elements we saw in Masks and Shadows; there is a troupe — actors rather than opera singers — whose fortune is at stake; there is a widowed woman at the center of the story; there are likable people coerced and threatened into working for evil; and there is a shadowy elemental entity with ideas of its own. Congress of Secrets is a different story though; Caroline is no innocent and she has an agenda. That held my interest and made me like her from the start. The bits of the backstory that Burgis provides show us how Caroline survived and became the strong woman she is. Michael was a stock character and his con was far less compelling. The love story has no surprises, but it was satisfying when set against the political and social intrigue. The magic does not take center stage here, but I didn’t mind that. Because this is a book about manipulations, the fact that the magic is not front-and-center works with the story’s internal logic. Michael’s final desperate plan and its outcome seem like a stretch, but once again, in a book about plays and stories, I was willing to accept a stretch.
Along the way we meet some historical characters like Tallyrand, Emperor Francis and Count Pergen, who were real people, and my personal favorite, Prince de Ligne. He was obviously Burgis’s favorite too, and will probably be nearly everybody’s. He was a real person and in her afterword Burgis points us as a biography of this fascinating aristocrat and social observer.
Two asides: Pyr has given Congress of Secrets a luscious, romance-y cover that suits the book very well. In the past when I’ve read Pyr books (not ARCs but market-ready books) I’ve been distracted by the small line-editing errors I’ve found, and I found none here. The book is well-produced and the package is worthy of the story.
Congress of Secrets is totally enjoyable. On a personal note, I finished this book up under deplorable conditions: election night. The glittering vistas, the clever dialogue, the twisty intrigue, the scary magic and the dramatic, theatrical ending were just what I needed to get me through. I enjoyed this romantic, exciting story.
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