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Review: CONGRESS OF SECRETS, by Stephanie Burgis

28953200I received this book from Pyr Books through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to them both for the opportunity to read this novel.

If I enjoyed Stephanie Burgis’ previous book, Masks and Shadows, this one went well beyond any expectations I had, after my first encounter with this writer. Congress of Secrets is far richer and multi-faceted than its predecessor and I enjoyed it very much, as the levels of tension and intrigue kept me glued to the pages until the end.  The story is set a few decades after the events of Masks and Shadows, and follows new characters, although there is a passing mention of Marie Dommaier, the young maid-turned-opera singer, who seems to have become very famous and whose role appears to be the handing of the narrative baton to the new players.

Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, hides a secret: she was born Karolina Vögl, daughter of a Viennese printer arrested by the secret police twenty-five years previously for his illegal anti-establishment pamphlets. Karolina herself was a prisoner of Count Pergen, the head of the secret police, who held her – and other equally forgotten victims – as a subject for his experiments in dark magic and alchemy for several years.  She is now back in Vienna, with the pretext of following the Congress being held on the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat: her real goal is to find a way to free her father, the only one of Pergen’s inmates still to be released.

Michael Steinhüller is a professional con artist, and his latest scheme involves passing himself as a dispossessed Russian noble come to Vienna to obtain reparations for the losses suffered during Bonaparte’s campaigns of conquest. He’s no stranger to Caroline, either, since he was her father’s apprentice when the police came to arrest them all, and her last image of him – and Michael’s recurring shameful memory – is of Michael running for his life as the printer’s shop was torched.  When he meets Karolina/Caroline again, the past threatens to infringe on their respective plans and to intrude with uncomfortable memories and unspoken feelings.

Around these two main characters moves a number of either fictional or historical figures, making once more this novel a rich tale that intrigues with its core story and stimulates curiosity toward the events being depicted: if Peter Riesenbeck, the leader of an acting troupe traveling to Vienna in search of success and fame, is an imaginary construct, and the unwitting lynchpin around which part of the drama unfolds, there are also some very real people moving across the stage and weaving seamlessly between reality and fantasy. There is Emperor Francis and the dark secrets he shares with evil Count Pergen, another all too true figure from the past; or we encounter famous politicians as Talleyrand and Metternich; or again my favorite among the secondary players, the Prince de Ligne, who I discovered was a flesh-and-blood person, widely known for his wit and his scorn of political expedience: his friendship with Caroline and his avuncular curiosity toward her, and the mystery she represents, is one of the highlights of the story.

Of course much revolves around Caroline and Michael’s meeting, the emotional undercurrents of their past and present and the misunderstandings that threaten to drive them further apart: once more I commend Ms. Burgis for not placing the romance at the center of the story, but using it simply as part of the plot, leaving the daring schemes of the two under the spotlight.  Caroline herself is an intriguing character: like her virtual “sister” Charlotte von Steinbeck in Masks and Shadows, she works within the era’s social conventions, but manages to wield whatever power she can muster with skill and courage, driven by the need to free her father and the guilt she feels for the long years she was forced to abandon him to his destiny.  Caroline is no innocent – her truncated childhood saw to that in no small measure – and she’s not an angel either, able as she is to employ her feminine wiles to advantage, but at the same time her past experiences and the deals she had to make have not hardened her completely, and she retains a core of vulnerability that gives her personality a delightful complexity.

The magic elements of the novel are just as intriguing – and frightening: the darkness that inhabits count Pergen and allows him to draw energies from his victims, shifting them to himself or other recipients not unlike a blood transfusion, seems to have a connection with the dark, formless shapes that we saw in Masks and Shadows, and maybe is a sort of evolution of that entity, or a side manifestation. Much is left to the imagination and not explained completely (something I approve of) and the very insubstantial nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so terrifying and believable, especially in the final scenes of the unfolding drama.

If the story seems to end with a somewhat easy “and they lived happily thereafter”, it does so in a very satisfactory way – and after the horror and anguish visited on the characters for most of the time, I think they deserve it, and so do the readers.  The added value in this novel, even more than in its predecessor, lies in the curiosity that the author manages to instigate in her audience about the historical period in which the action is set, and in the real-life figures presented there. As always, a book that makes me think, besides its entertainment value, is a good one.

Very, very highly recommended.

My Rating:


Review: THE APOTHECARY’S CURSE, by Barbara Barnett

29358253I received this book from Pyr through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for granting me this opportunity.

When I saw this title in the list of the books offered for review I was immediately intrigued, since the story promised to combine old myths and modern conspiracies in what looked like an irresistible mix. Gaelan Erceldoune is an apothecary in mid-nineteenth century London, a man harboring a secret that goes back to more ancient times. When he is approached by Dr. Simon Bell, a man desperate to save his beloved wife Sophie from cancer, he concocts a substance that could cure her, provided his client follows instructions to the letter. Sadly, Sophie dies anyway and Simon, in a fit of desperation, drinks the rest of the elixir to follow her into death, but only manages to make himself immortal, just like Gaelan who drank a similar potion to cure himself from the plague two centuries earlier.

From that moment on, the destiny of both men becomes inextricably linked: as Simon tries in vain to kill himself, not realizing yet the change effected by the potion, Gaelan becomes the victim of a deranged scientist who submits him to terrible tortures for years in the hope of finding the secret of his rapid healing and immortality. When the two reunite again they will need to pool their resources to find the key to their condition in a mysterious book of ancient remedies that was Gaelan’s family heirloom and that disappeared after his incarceration.  Gaelan hungers for the old wisdom contained in the book, the only link that remains to his long-lost family, and Simon only seeks the way to reverse the procedure and finally join his beloved Sophie in death.

The story unfolds on two tracks – the events from mid-nineteenth century London and those from the present day – that intertwine around each other not unlike DNA strands, an image that recurs often in the course of the novel. This narrative style makes for a quick, fascinating read, even more so for the past, as we follow Gaelan’s soul-wrenching experiences at the hands of doctor Hailey and his cronies, who could give the infamous Mengele some points.  In the present, the danger comes from the research of an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company that has gotten wind of Gaelan’s existence and tries to hunt him down for the obvious advantages that could derive from the study of such a unique individual.

I did enjoy the story overall, though I felt more partial to the half of it set in the past: to me it held the attraction of a period piece interlaced with some mystery and a few touches of ancient magic, and I loved the peek it allowed into the times’ mores and thought processes, even though the language sounded a little too flowery for my tastes.

The present-times section had a more… unfinished flavor for me, and it contrasted starkly with its twin half: if I wanted to put my feelings into images, I could say that the nineteenth century sections were in full color, while the twenty-first century ones seemed somewhat faded and less real than their counterparts.  After a while I found myself thinking that the author must have felt this way as well, and needed to anchor the writing for the present times to some firm points: I believe this must have been the reason for the liberal (and in my opinion often unwarranted) use of the f** word or the brand names of the various articles of clothing, drinks or electronic equipment mentioned in the course of the story, that always felt to me like pasted-on additions that somehow did not truly belong in there.

That said, The Apothecary’s Curse is a swift, interesting read that will appeal to the estimators of the genre.

My Rating:


Review: MASKS AND SHADOWS, by Stephanie Burgis

25893822I received this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Historical fantasy is quickly becoming one of my favorite genres: on one side, the mix between established history and fantastic elements creates a unique blend that enhances both components, while on the other, curiosity about any given time period compels me to search for further information and therefore to enrich my knowledge base.  No one could ask more from a book, besides its intrinsic entertainment value…

Masks and Shadows focuses on the Hapsburg Empire at the end of the 18th Century, blending fictional characters with historical figures like Prince Nikolaus Ezsterhazy and Empress Marie Therese, and flowing into a lively, fast-paced narrative whose momentum is carried by continuous changes in point of view, handled with such dexterity that they are never confusing or distracting. Mirroring the operatic plays that figure quite extensively in the course of the story, this huge cast acts indeed like a well-rehearsed production, staging a sequence of conspiracies, revelations, plots-within-plots and romantic entanglements worth of the best composer – and it’s no coincidence that Franz Joseph Haydn figures prominently here as a sort of connecting link between all of these elements.

At Ezterhaza, Prince Nikolaus’ Versailles-like summer residence, the crowd of distinguished guests is joined by Carlo Morelli, Europe’s most famous castrato singer, by a renowned alchemist and a would-be writer suspected of being a spy: the stage is set from the very early pages for a story where mystery, magic and secrets abound, and where danger and conspiracies lurk under the gilded patina of wealth and power.  At the palace another main character is already in residence: Charlotte von Steinbeck, widowed sister of Sophie, the Prince’s mistress.

No two people could be more different than these sisters: Sophie is quickly shown as an airhead who revels in her station as a powerful man’s mistress, a selfish and vain creature who doesn’t care about the people or sensibilities she tramples on, as long as she can keep enjoying her exalted status. Charlotte, on the other hand, is nothing but dutiful and obedient: just as she submitted to her marriage to an ailing man old enough to be her grandfather, so now she submits to her sister’s whims, even justifying them as her duty. She embodies all that is proper and respectable, and does not seem to struggle under the weight of so many obligations: at first I felt some irritation at her attitude, no matter how properly it fit the time’s mores, because Charlotte felt so totally passive. But little by little I started to understand how she had been molded into that shape by her enclosed – and enclosing – world: only by getting out of her secluded existence she starts to realize there is more to life, that the boundaries of her world need not be so constricting. It’s not a thunderclap revelation, since Charlotte comes into this new awareness in small increments, and still feeling guilty for what she perceives as stealing some space of her own, but she ultimately gets there, and following that progress is both enjoyable and satisfying.

One of the major contributions to Charlotte’s awakening is that of Carlo Morelli: since their first meeting it looks like a given that they will become close, but the author played this development with a light, almost shy hand, thus avoiding to make the relationship look like a tired trope.  What drives them together, more than anything else, is the unexpressed feeling of being outsiders: Carlo because of his nature, one that makes him both a sought-after guest and a gossip-worthy freak (there is an enlightening conversation between Sophie and Charlotte, where the former wonders if they should really refer to the singer as a ‘he’, since he lacks the so-called manly attributes); and Charlotte because in such “exalted” company of jaded and spoiled aristocrats devoid of depth, her cultural sensibilities make her stand out like a sore thumb.  Music – and there is a great deal of it, both played and discussed – is the vehicle through which Charlotte starts to feel and express her newfound need for freedom, and music is what brings her closer to Carlo.

What I most approved in Charlotte’s journey, and what I applaud the author for, is that the relationship with Carlo Morelli is only a means for the young widow’s breaking of her chains, but not the end. The moment when Charlotte understands she wants more is not tied to her feelings for the singer, but to a dramatic circumstance in which she realizes that life is far too short to be wasted, and that she has not lived enough, experienced enough.  That she will choose to travel that path with him is a consequence of that understanding, but not the main reason – and this is surprisingly and delightfully modern.    Carlo’s changes somewhat mirror Charlotte’s, since it’s from exposure to her plain demeanor that he understands how tired he is of the cruel hypocrisy of the aristocratic world: in a way they transform each other, again belying the one-way direction of such events that’s typical of less original writing.

The novel’s cast of secondary players is rich, embracing the whole spectrum of characters from good to bad, from exploiters to victims, with a few honorable mentions as Prince Nikolaus’ wife – forced to bear her husband’s blatant infidelity with all the grace and dignity of a true lady – or Anna, Charlotte’s maid who is fortuitously launched into a bright career as a singer; and yet there is another important character I want to spend a few words about, and it’s music: the descriptions of music – be it played with instruments or sung – is always quite inspired and contributes to create the rich tapestry of this story.  As a lover of classical music, I was aware of Franz Joseph Haydn’s existence and yet never listened to any of his works, so that when I did, spurred by this novel, I discovered a great number of compositions that are both pleasant and uplifting, just like the personality of the man described in Masks and Shadows.  As a tribute to him, I’m adding a link to one of his pieces, in the hope of sharing this discovery with everyone who will read this.

My only criticism toward Masks and Shadows comes from the feeling that this fascinating historical period is not explored enough: while I’m aware that the brief mentions contained in the story can compel readers to search for more information (as I did), still I feel that a few more details would have added depth to the background and that some of the characters and their motivations would have been clearer. The author probably wanted to avoid any danger of long exposition, and that’s to be commended, but I can’t shake the feeling she erred on the side of caution…  This said, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and would love to read more along these same lines.

My Rating:


Review: OCCUPIED EARTH, edited by G.Phillips & R. Brewer

24612430I received this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

This kind of anthology is usually centered round a core theme that individual authors choose to develop as they wish, while here I found a different interpretation: there is a common background, concerning the invasion of an alien species called Makh-ra, who have conquered Earth and are ruling it and exploiting its resources.  Therefore each author had to work inside a set of pre-established parameters, giving this anthology a very different feel than usual – in other words, this reads more like a novel developed through a change of POV at each new chapter, rather than a collection of disjointed stories, and that gives it a more cohesive feel that I found quite enjoyable.

Another point of interest in these collected stories is that they don’t focus on the actual invasion: that’s already in the past, one generation removed or thereabouts. What the anthology chose to show is the aftermath, the way in which people and customs re-arrange themselves in the face of occupation, the dichotomy in outlook between those who remember life as it was pre-invasion and those, like the younger people, who have known nothing else.  The Earth that comes through these stories is quite a dismal place: the stripping of resources by the Makh-ra has generated shortages (like water, for example, that’s subject to rationing) and supplies are not as plentiful as before; cities present large ruined areas, some as the result of battles during the invasion, others because the changes in economy have decreed the end of once-flourishing activities. The separation between those with power and influence and the rest of the populace has increased, and only individuals who have chosen to collaborate with the new rulers can enjoy a semblance of normal life.

“Semblance” being the operative word here, because the Makh-ra’s rule is far from a benevolent one: the overall flavor of this situation strongly reminded me of the stories of occupied France under the Nazi invasion in WWII, with a curfew in place, strong restrictions on travel and frequent searches of places or people suspected of aiding rebels.  As it happened in that historical period, many have chosen to collaborate with the alien invaders: some for personal gain, some because they have no other choice, with all the possible variations in between the two opposites.  There are a few instances of attempts at integration as well, the case in point being that of the three-part story from the anthology’s editors, that acts as a sort of frame for the others: here a human FBI agent works side-by-side with his Makh-ra colleague, and they manage to reach a sort of mutual understanding through shared work and dangers.

In general, though, the Makh-ra act as conquerors and oppressors, and even though some of them seem willing to adopt a few human traits and preferences, still they maintain an air of arrogance, the inner conviction that conquest is something of a god-given right stemming from superiority in mind, body and customs.  The Makh-ra, however, also represent the weakest feature of this anthology in my opinion, because they are not alien enough: I’m not speaking about their appearance, which is roughly humanoid except for their taller, stronger frame and the dark, light-sensitive eyes.  The lack of alien-ness I perceived comes from the mind-view that seems more like that of a stolid bureaucrat, rather than that of an off-world creature: granted, this allowed for many of the interesting developments portrayed in the stories, but still I could not avoid the comparison with the Star Trek aliens – my main disappointment with the various incarnations of the series – who are nothing more than humans with strange noses or foreheads. In my opinion, to be truly alien a creature requires one to exhibit some outlandish traits, some quality that is so far removed from our own experience that the sheer otherness of it jumps straight at you. Sadly, that was not the case here, though it was not a major problem.

The quality of the stories is generally good – with anthologies it’s a given that some might appeal more than others – and there are two of them that I found truly outstanding: Strange Alliance (by Cliff Allen) concerning a human who has risen through the Makh-ra ranks to a position of prestige, and Traitor (by Adam Lance Garcia) focusing on the woman who aided and abetted the alien invasion, and the consequences on her personal life.  These two were several steps above the others, breathing life and consistency into their characters.

In short, this is a peculiar kind of collection that’s certainly worth exploring and offers a new outlook on a well-known trope.

My Rating:


Review: BLACK CITY SAINT, by Richard Knaak

26025681I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Urban Fantasy went a long way, lately, to disavow readers about the beauty and charm of the Fae world, and while Black City Saint is no exception, this book manages to bring the concept several steps further into darkness – and terror.  If we had any residual delusion about these creatures, after reading this novel we will never look at queen Titania or king Oberon in the same way: at some point their Shakespearian counterparts are mentioned, but only to stress they are as far from the characters portrayed here as possible, and the Bard is shown as the fallible reporter of imperfect information.

The Gate separating Faerie from the mortal world used to be guarded by a powerful creature, a dragon, the very same that was slain by legendary Saint George who, in so doing, exposed the world of men to the dangers of contact with Faerie: the dragon slayer, now forever joined to the creature he vanquished – or what remains of it – is now both duty-bound and cursed to guard the portal between the two realms and as the story opens lives as occult investigator Nick Medea in the Chicago of the ‘20s, keeping watch for the creatures escaping though some crack in the Gate and hunting them without mercy.

There is a fascinating juxtaposition here between the fell denizens of Faerie and the Chicago underworld of gangsters and bootleggers, giving the story a peculiar noir feeling with a twist, a danger that remains unseen to most of the population but still affects their lives and the destiny of their city: the terrible fire that consumed most of it in the second half of the 19th century, for example, was in truth due to the dragon’s fiery breath as Nick battled with Oberon, king of Faerie, and destroyed him – or so he thought.

As the story opens, Nick Medea perceives that something is terribly wrong, that darkness and danger are looming over his city, and the terrifying discovery is that Oberon survived and has been planning his return for long decades, intending to use Chicago as the battleground for his clash with queen Titania: here lies the true horror of the premise, that humanity is nothing more than collateral damage between two opposing forces of evil, one bent on conquest and the other driven to maintain her power, no matter the cost. Nick must act both as guardian and as balance between those powers, but he’s dangerously distracted by the re-appearance of his love Cleolinda, the woman he already lost to death several times over the course of the centuries. When she contacts him to engage his professional skills, she appears as Claryce, a young woman worried about some strange events she witnessed, but Nick sees behind the façade and recognizes his many-times-lost love, deciding that this incarnation must survive, no matter what.

Despite the “damsel in distress” premise, Claryce is anything but: strong and determined she constantly refuses to be left behind or to stay safe, on the contrary she demands to be part of the action, especially when her feelings for Nick start surfacing. This is indeed a refreshing approach both for the genre and for the time period chosen as background: even when the truth about her nature and the past she doesn’t remember are revealed, she wastes no time in needless lamentations, showing a remarkable backbone that makes her stand out in interesting light and ultimately reveals her for the bold fighter she is, a true warrior princess of old.

Curiously enough, the main character Nick Medea is less defined than his companions: apart from his history, that comes up in bits and pieces over the course of the book, little is revealed about him beyond his determination to fulfill his task and the terrible memories that haunt his days and his tormented nights.  Moreover, events tend to  depict him as somewhat easily deceived, since more than once he falls prey to others’ machinations: true, heroes don’t have necessarily to be perfect, but poor Nick Medea sometimes fails to connect the dots…

Much more interesting is Fetch, his lycanthrope side-kick, an exile from Faerie who can talk when in proximity with Nick and expresses himself in an entertaining mix of old-fashioned language and contemporary slang that manages to define his mercurial personality in sharp relief: I can say with certainty that he’s the character that most appealed to me, the one that felt more real and three-dimensional, even in the surprising developments centered around him in the course of the story.

Equally interesting – in a disquieting sort of way – are Diocles (the ghost of former emperor Diocletianus, and Saint George’s executioner) and Kravayik, another exile from Faerie: this creature, draping himself in human form that can barely disguise his otherwordly origins, is one of the most intriguing figures, a staunch observer of the commandments of the Church after his conversion to religion. His total devotion and subservience to Nick, coupled with hints about his true nature, make him one of the creepiest figures in this novel, as fascinating as a caged anaconda – a creature best observed from a safe distance.

The story is an absorbing and swift read, and only sags slightly in the central segment, where the narrative hits a sort of repetitive loop: it takes flight again shortly after, though, and reaches its apex in the last fifty-odd pages, where the action speeds up at a breakneck pace through sudden betrayals, about-faces and the climax of Oberon’s decades-long plan for conquest, closing the book with a very satisfying ending that hints at possible sequels.  Something I would be quite interested in…

My thanks to Pyr Books and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read and review this novel, that will be officially published today.

My Rating: