Stephanie Burgis' Congress of Secrets was published by Pyr in November 2016.
Information about Stephanie Burgis:
Stephanie Burgis was born in Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband, writer Patrick Samphire, and their children. Before becoming a fulltime writer, she studied music history as a Fulbright Scholar in Vienna, Austria, and worked as a website editor for a British opera company. She has published over thirty short stories for adults. Kat, Incorrigible (US)/A Most Improper Magick (UK) won the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Début Children’s Novel by a British writer. It was followed by Renegade Magic/A Tangle of Magicks and Stolen Magic/A Reckless Magick.
Click here to visit her official website.
Information about Congress of Secrets:
In 1814, the Congress of Vienna has just begun. Diplomats battle over a new map of Europe, actors vie for a chance at glory, and aristocrats and royals from across the continent come together to celebrate the downfall of Napoleon... among them Lady Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow. But Caroline has a secret: she was born Karolina Vogl, daughter of a radical Viennese printer. When her father was arrested by the secret police, Caroline’s childhood was stolen from her by dark alchemy.
Under a new name and nationality, she returns to Vienna determined to save her father even if she has to resort to the same alchemy that nearly broke her before. But she isn’t expecting to meet her father’s old apprentice, Michael Steinhüller, now a charming con man in the middle of his riskiest scheme ever.
The sinister forces that shattered Caroline’s childhood still rule Vienna behind a glittering façade of balls and salons, Michael’s plan is fraught with danger, and both of their disguises are more fragile than they realize. What price will they pay to the darkness if either of them is to survive?
A REVIEW OF STEPHANIE BURGIS' CONGRESS OF SECRETS
Congress of Secrets is Stephanie Burgis' second historical fantasy novel for adult readers. Because I recently read the author's previous novel, Masks and Shadows, and enjoyed it, I was eager to read this novel. I was pleased to find out that Congress of Secrets was an excellent, gripping and immersive novel with a focus on a fresh and rich story. When I began to read it, I was immediately hooked by the story and found myself fascinated by the characters and their complex lives.
With this novel, Stephanie Burgis establishes herself as one of the best authors of entertaining historical fantasy fiction. She does what many others fail to do and that is to thoroughly entertain and thrill her readers with a good story and interesting characters. She understands that in order to write good historical fantasy, one must not settle on mediocrity, but go beyond it and reach for a level of entertainment that satisfies even the most jaded reader.
Congress of Secrets has everything that I expect to find in well written history fantasy fiction. It has a diverse cast of characters, dark alchemy and a well-created story. There's even a touch of romance to it that I find totally satisfying and intriguing. I love the author's fluent way of combining different elements and keeping the story on the move, because there's never a dull moment.
In my opinion, Congress of Secrets is just as good as if not even better than Masks and Shadows. I noticed that in this novel Stephanie Burgis writes a bit more confidently about certain things than in the previous novel. She also pays attention to the mysterious and thrilling atmosphere in a stronger way. She offers her readers an engaging story filled with dark magic, intrigue, excitement.
Because the Congress of Vienna serves as a backdrop for the story, I think it's good to say a few words about it (you don't necessarily have to know anything about history in order to enjoy the story, but a bit of knowledge about it will help you to understand certain things better): The Congress of Vienna was a conference of ambassadors of European states chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, and held in Vienna from November 1814 to June 1815, though the delegates had arrived and were already negotiating by late September 1814. The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. (More information about the Congress of Vienna can easily be found from the internet.)
It's great that the author has chosen the Congress of Vienna to serve as a backdrop for her story, because it's an interesting period of time in the European history. Because the story deals with a specific time in history, I strongly believe that it has the power to make readers curious about historical events related to the Congress of Vienna. It will also appeal to those who are familiar with European history and the Congress of Vienna, because it explores historical elements in the context of speculative fiction.
Here's a bit of information about the story:
Michael Steinhüller is ready to play the gamble of his life, because the Congress of Vienna is the chance that he's been waiting for. He doesn't dare to enter Vienna because of the secret police, so he persuades Peter Riesenbeck to smuggle him there by telling him lies about his background and family... Caroline, Countess of Wyndham, has arrived in Vienna. She is on a mission and doesn't want anybody to know her true identity. Her childhood was destroyed and shattered by dark alchemy administered by Count Pergen, who is now the head of the secret police. She has come to save her father and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goal... Soon Michael meets Caroline and recognises her as Karolina Vogl whom he used to know as a young man...
This is the beginning of a highly entertaining story which brings two people together and tells of their lives, deeds and plans.
The characterisation is excellent and fascinatingly vivid. The author breathes life into her protagonists in an effortless way and makes her readers care about them. I found both of the protagonists to be well-developed and realistic, because they had lives, past and secrets of their own.
Caroline Wyndham is a wealthy English widow who has kept her true identity a secret. Nobody knows that her real name is Karolina Vogl and she used to live in Vienna. Her father worked as a printer and was arrested by the secret police when she was a child. Her childhood was ruined by dark alchemy which caused much suffering to her. She wants to save her father.
Michael Steinhüller is a con man who escaped Vienna when he was a young man. He was an apprentice for Caroline's father. He has returned to Vienna as Prince Stefan Kalishnikoff and aims to carry out the greatest and most rewarding scheme of his life. He knows that there are many risks to his scheme, but he's willing to face them.
Prince de Ligne and Peter Riesenbeck are interesting supporting characters, because their presence adds plenty of additional fascination to the story. I loved the way the author wrote about them, because she vividly described what kind of persons they were and what they did. I especially enjoyed reading about Peter and his deeds, because he was part of a theatrical troupe.
The Emperor Francis is descibed as a villainous man whose secret police does ruthless deeds and arrests people. Count Pergen is a fascinatingly sinister character who uses dark alchemy and is chief advisor to the Emperor. Both of these characters add a wonderfully macabre flavour to the story.
There's intriguing tension between the protagonists, because they haven't seen each other in years since the tragic happenings that led to the arrest of Caroline's father. I enjoyed reading about how Caroline and Michael recognised each other and how they felt about their reunion, because there were unresolved issues between them that had been festering inside of them. Because they lived dangerous lives, they had to maintain their façades while carrying out their plans. They couldn't risk anybody finding out who they really were and had to keep up their roles as well as they could, but simultaneously they had to come to terms with what had happened to them, because they both had to sort out their own feelings and emotions.
I was thrilled to read about the relationship between Caroline and Michael, because the author addresses their problems and feelings in a believable way. She writes about them in an exceptionally realistic yet entertaining way, because she focuses on writing about how they interact with each other in different situations and how they feel about each other. Their desperation and determination are wonderfully conveyed to the readers.
The author expertly weaves dark alchemy and paranormal elements into her story. I enjoyed reading about alchemy and how it was used in Vienna, because it added plenty of fascination and richness to the story.
The scenes featuring events and memories from Caroline's childhood are satisfyingly dark and chilling, because she had a nightmarish and torture-filled childhood. Count Pergen used her as a subject in his dark alchemical experiments, because he needed to practice his skills. He subjected her to brutal and evil experiments against her will. The author writes unflinchingly about these brutalities and tells how they have affected Caroline.
One of the things why I love this novel is that the historical elements feel accurate and well researched. The author has clearly invested a lot of time into polishing many details and enjoys writing about them. She makes sure that they feel as believable as possible.
This novel has subtle complexity and depth that is lacking from many historical fantasy novels. Although this novel is pure entertainment from start to finish, there's a wealth of underlying depth to it that is not often found in similar kind of fiction. I found myself impressed by the references to historical events and enjoyed reading about how people played challenging roles to achieve their goals.
I love the author's engaging and descriptive writing style. She writes fluent and effortlessly flowing prose that is a pleasure to read. I was impressed by how easily she wrote about the happenings, because she didn't get stuck at any places, but kept the story flowing and gradually added more depth to it. I enjoyed her way of blending historical accuracy with imaginative fiction, because she fully succeeds in it. There was something in her writing style that reminded me a bit of Anne Rice's early novels. There's also a touch of Lynn Flewelling-like charm to her storytelling that I find compelling.
Stephanie Burgis' strengths as an author lie in good characterisation and immersive storytelling. She's a gifted storyteller, because she manages to immerse her readers in a world gone by in an effortless way. She easily creates a mysterious atmosphere that enthralls readers and keeps them turning pages.
I give this novel full five stars on the scale from one to five stars, because I enjoyed reading it and found it highly entertaining. I sincerely hope that the author will continue to write this kind of fiction, because she's a gifted writer.
If you're a newcomer to Stephanie Burgis' fiction, you're in for quite a special treat when you begin to read this novel, because you'll be pulled into a world of intrigue and secrets. If you're familiar with Masks and Shadows, you'll love this novel, because it has everything that it has and then some. It's a lush, nuanced and beautifully written novel with deliciously dark and evil moments.
Stephanie Burgis' Congress of Secrets is first-rate historical fantasy entertainment, because it's a rewarding and unputdownable novel. It's one of those novels that can be enjoyed in one sitting, because once you start reading it, you'll notice that it's nearly impossible to stop reading it. If you love historical fantasy novels with elements of dark magic and romance woven into the storyline, you must read Congress of Secrets, because it'll charm you with its story and compelling setting.
Excellent historical fantasy entertainment!