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?
Last April I read Stephanie Burgis’ Masks and Shadows, her first novel for adults and fell absolutely in love with her writing. So I after I finished the book, I was really happy to discover that she had a book set in the same variant of our world coming out in November of last year. Congress of Secrets was everything I hoped it would be and more, taking what I loved about Masks and Shadows and improving on the things that niggled me. Burgis enchanted me once again with Caroline’s tale and I would have loved to have spend even more time in this world.
While Congress of Secrets isn’t a sequel to Masks and Shadows, it is set in the same world and there are clear links between the books in the background. The book is set during the Congress of Vienna, the large conference that was held after the Napoleonic wars to settle the peace accords. It is a part of history I didn’t know much about, being more familiar with the French occupation of the Netherlands and what happened here after the French left. So more small stage than the large arena of the Congress. Burgis invokes Vienna and the strained atmosphere that accompanies a meeting between former foes to forge a peace of necessity vividly and I loved the court scenes.
It is in this fraught setting that Caroline and Michael meet again. I loved that while neither are who they were before, they each recognise the other’s true identity immediately and that each still looms large in the other’s motivations, though not exactly in the same way. The way Michael and Karolina regard each other and treated each other is light years removed from how Lady Caroline and Stefan, Prince Kalishnikoff interact with each other and Burgis manages to interweave the tensions of both situations yet keep them distinct at the same time. The romance between Caroline and Michael is wonderful and well-structured. The added hurdle of their tangled identities and pasts only increases the satisfaction of seeing them truly connect.
But while their romance is important to the story, both Caroline and Michael have independent emotional arcs to fulfil in the narrative that are interesting in their own right. They both need to conquer the ghosts of their past and find a way forward by forgiving their younger selves. I found Caroline’s arc especially affecting, given her desire to rescue her father and her willingness to sacrifice anything to find him.
Caroline and Michael have a firm friend and ally in the form of the Prince de Ligne, who really stole every one of his scenes. He was such a roguish charmer and an excellent co-conspirator as well. And they sorely need his aid against the villainous Emperor Francis and his chief advisor Count Pergen, both of whom were just freaking scary and unpleasant individuals. The combination of their supernatural dealings and their use of their ruthless secret police was a chilling one. I’d never heard of the Habsburg secret police force before, but their actions and methods were awful, even if you set the supernatural aside.
One final viewpoint that plays a large part in the story is that of the theatre company owner, Peter Riesenbeck, who was also a great character. I felt so sorry for him as he wanted to do the right thing so badly and that was exactly what kept putting him in harm’s way. He gave an outsider’s perspective and showed the true horror of the state’s misdeeds under the direction of Francis and Pergen. Besides, I loved his scenes with his theatre company, as Burgis paints Peter’s principals without covering up any of their flaws and shows human nature in all its awful glory.
Congress of Secrets is a wonderful story that I absolutely loved. Stephanie Burgis proves once again that she can write a cracking story, no matter whether she’s writing for children, young adults, or adults. If historical fantasy is even remotely your thing, you shouldn’t miss Congress of Secrets.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.