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: November 1st 2016 by Pyr
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Source: the publisher
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After Napoleon’s defeat, world leaders and aristocrats gathered for the Congress of Vienna in order to negotiate peace between the world’s powers. In Congress of Secrets, Stephanie Burgis reimagines what the Congress of Vienna would be like if dark alchemy was in play.
The story alternates between two major protagonists. Caroline Wyndham is an English heiress with a secret. She’s actually Karolina, and grew up in Vienna. Because of her father’s revolutionary connections ended up being held captive and alchemically tortured by Pergren, the head of the secret police, until she managed to escape and seek a new life for herself. Her father’s whereabouts are still unknown, so Caroline comes to the Congress of Vienna hoping to confront her former captor and rescue her father.
Meanwhile, Karolina’s childhood friend Michael has spent his life perfecting his skills as a con artist. He’s hoping to settle down, and the Congress of Vienna gives him the perfect opportunity. He’s passing himself off as minor Russian aristocracy, and hopes that his presence at the Congress will grant him an aura of legitimacy and that he will be able to keep this new role.
Neither Caroline nor Michael ever expected to see each other again, and so when they meet in Vienna it comes as a shock to both of them. And since they obviously know each other, they have to try very hard to keep up their individual charades without breaking cover. And seeing each other rekindles old feelings, even though both characters realize that now is not the ideal time nor the ideal place for them. This means that while there is a romance element to the story, it’s understated, and while it’s important, it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story.
This book was very similar conceptually to Burgis’ earlier novel Masks and Shadows, and I adored it. I find this type of story fascinating because it is historically accurate, and aside from the introduction of alchemy and the existence of our two protagonists, it doesn’t take a lot of liberties with what actually happened. Readers experience both the tension and the sense of possibility that the Congress of Vienna represented, and the alchemy blends seamlessly with the story.
Pergren makes an excellent villain. As a historical figure, he’s creepy enough even without being a sadistic demonically possessed alchemist/warlock, and with the alchemy, he’s the kind of villain who can send chills down your spine. I’m of the opinion that the villain can make or break a book, and this one was definitely a success.
I also enjoyed that minor characters were well-rounded. For example, members of a troupe of actors who aided Michael’s entrance through the city gates had solid backstories and motivations for being in Vienna, and ended up playing a key role in the resolution of the story. And Caroline’s secretary was a shady sort of character who never seemed entirely trustworthy, and didn’t just stay in the background as events unfolded around him. Everyone in the story is there for a reason, and their stories are artfully woven together to form a climactic ending. Much like Masks and Shadows, the storytelling reminded me a bit of an orchestral piece.
If you’re interested in reading Congress of Secrets and live in the US or Canada, it’s your lucky day! I’m giving away two copies of the book courtesy of the publisher. To enter, use the Rafflecopter below:
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