Book Review: CONGRESS OF SECRETS by Stephanie Burgis

5 Apr

Known for her Regency-era fantasy series for middle-grade readers that began with A Most Improper Magick (published as Kat, Incorrigible in the US), Stephanie Burgis’ debut novel for adults, Masks and Shadows, similarly combined romanticism with the fantastic. Her sophomore novel, released at the end of 2016 by Pyr, continues this formula. Well paced and passionately infused with historical details and characters, Congress of Secrets will appeal to readers who enjoy a touch of magical darkness balancing Austenesque romance and historical intrigue.

The story is set in 1814 at the start of the Congress of Vienna, a conference held by European powers to settle pressing geopolitical issues after the initial defeat of Napoleon. Clandestinely among the throngs arriving into the city are two former citizens who have spent years in exile, separated from Vienna and from one another after a traumatic night that ended in flames and escape from the secret police. Karolina Vogl, daughter of a printer who published pamphlets critical of the Holy Roman Emperor, is now a wealthy English widow named Lady Caroline Wyndham. With the passage of time and her new identity, Caroline plans to take advantage of the Congress to locate and rescue her imprisoned father. But Michael Steinhüller, an opportunistic con man who had been her father’s former apprentice, also uses the Congress as an opportunity to re-enter Vienna, posing as one “Prince Kalishnikoff” and looking for a score of a lifetime. Amid the diplomatic aristocracy Caroline and Michael each maneuver towards their goals, trying to avoid discovery. However, the greatest threat to their plans may be a chance, volatile reunion with one another, and reignited emotions of friendship and betrayal in their shared past.

After graduating from Clarion West, Burgis entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Leeds, where her thesis research focused on opera and politics in 18th Century Vienna. Burgis’ familiarity and love for these topics and the period Viennese setting are apparent in Congress of Secrets. The atmosphere of the city and the era becomes almost a character in itself, drawing the reader into the story. Beyond that, it even affects the novel’s human characters, such as in this passage where Caroline reacts to the formidable presence of the Imperial palace:

“The air felt chill and bracing, despite the crowd of chattering nobles emerging from their own conveyances, royal guards marching across the courtyard with glittering dress swords on full display, and busy servants bustling around all of them. Caroline drew a deep breath as she looked across the swarming activity to the palace whose wings enfolded them all.  

Schönbrunn’s three stories rose in golden grandeur before them, the large side wings bunching toward the great central building. Elegant half-pillars lined the façade in gilded cream stripes, alternating with arched windows against the deep gold walls. Stone spires rose in martial formations atop the roof of the main building; in the very center, above fanned-out swords and shields and the symbol of victory, a Habsburg double-headed eagle spread out its wings in conquest. Caroline felt her chest tighten in response, as if it would squeeze all breath and hope from her.

She had never seen Schönbrunn before, never been held captive here or anywhere else outside Vienna’s city walls. But in its elegant architectural assumptions of dominion, it represented all of the smug, unthinking power that had imprisoned her and her father and cared nothing for their fates.

How could she hope to stand against it on her own?”

— p. 154

The romantic lens through which Burgis depicts the setting is similar to the chemistry shared between Caroline and Michael, a mixture of awe and fear, a love that is clouded by mystic, shadowy secrets. They are attractions that are powerful and inescapable, despite the risks they may represent.

There is nothing particularly unfamiliar in that romantic attraction between Caroline and Michael. However, Burgis effectively renders them each as individuals of equal standing. They have their own particular agendas and they each have vulnerability to the other, just as they each have the potential to support one another or stand on their own.

Congress of Secrets is not just historical romance, but contains elements of fantasy with the inclusion of alchemy, a dark magic channeled by one of the two villains of the novel, Count Pergen. In charge of the secret police, Pergen was responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of Caroline’s father, and keeping the young Karolina as a guinea pig for his alchemy. Now also as current Emperor Francis’ chief advisor, Pergen enjoys tremendous power both political and magical. Needing to face her evil former captor and the odious Emperor Francis, Caroline has to reconcile the terrors of her past with the alchemical abilities she discovered as Pergen’s unwilling apprentice years before.

In terms of the plot and atmosphere, the fantasy element to Congress of Secrets merges seamlessly into the whole. However, in the characters and verisimilitude of setting, it causes some conflict, making the villains the weakest part of the novel. Both Emperor Francis and Count Pergen are historical figures, and the count in particular seems to have been a rather unpleasant person to have in a role of power. But in this novel that otherwise has fine historical details these characters are rather one-noted evil. While the Emperor is just written as a particularly bad person, Pergen is written as something no longer even human. Consumed by his devotion to dark alchemy, the Count is a fantastic monster. On its own there is nothing wrong with this, but that cartoonish villainy didn’t seem to fit with the other tones of the novel.

Those two historical figures then become rendered less realistically than the made-up protagonists of Congress of Secrets. However, other historical figures appear as secondary characters; they, as well as the secondary characters that are fictional, do form a well-integrated part of the novel’s focus. Most brilliant of all the secondary characters is the Prince de Ligne, a charming aristocrat with roguish wit who serves as a perfect side-kick to the conniving Michael and as a perfect complement to the serious focus of Caroline.

One of the secondary characters even serves as one of the novel’s points-of-view. This is Peter Riesenbeck, a theater troop manager who smuggles Michael into Vienna as part of the company without knowing the con artist’s true identity or purpose. I expected Peter’s supporting part to be limited, and at first felt confused what role he was playing by also having his direct perspective. Yet, as the novel drew to a close, his presence began to make sense and ultimately enriched the ending action.

I’m not convinced that Congress of Secrets inherently needed the alchemical fantasy within its plot or characters in order to succeed. As written, the fantasy does also impart a key aspect to Caroline’s character that becomes fully realized at novel’s close. In this, Burgis uses alchemy almost metaphorically to describe Caroline’s power to personally overcome memories of a dark past and present threats.

That touch of fantasy flavor does impart a unique tone to the novel, one that will resonate most strongly with readers who relish those combined dashes of fantasy, historical, and romance. Though not perfect, Burgis makes the combination work in a novel that has some beauty, chills, and adventurous fun.

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