Heat Factor: I’ll never look at linen closets the same way again.
Character Chemistry: Do you want to see a stern, bossy hero who is competence porn personified come undone? Because Maria sure does.
Plot: Eli is sent to Vienna on a wild goose chase and ends up in the middle of a conspiracy.
Overall: Loved it.
So, reading this book, my first reaction was: why aren’t more people writing books set in continental Europe during the Gilded Age? The setting of 1878 Vienna is spectacular. (I had a similar reaction to Biller’s previous book, which is set in 1878 Paris.) Britain during this time was all in on the Victorian period, the hallmarks of which (at least in fiction) were: purity, rigid social mores, trains, bustles, and empire. Continental Europe, on the other hand, is all about decadence, opulence, revoluton, and, well, empire. Which sounds more fun?
You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Eli’s description of night in Vienna:
Outside, the city had descended once more into black-and-gold madness. He sidestepped a group of jugglers (no one wanted one juggler, let alone a group of them), escaped a tense situation with a mime, and narrowly avoided being waltzed with by a group of rampaging youths.
One more note about the setting. So I was in Vienna maybe twenty years ago, and I don’t remember much of my time there. But I very distinctly remember my impression of the city as one of decayed opulence, of a city that was caught in its past glory of remembered empire.
That memory is not inconsistent with the portrayal of Vienna in this book.
All of which is to say: maybe I’m a huge nerd, but I love me a good historical romance with a setting that’s not a London ballroom circa 1818. And that the setting here permeates this book, such that Vienna at the last hurrah of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is almost a character.
Please note, however, that this book does not read as straight historical fiction. Vienna may be a character, but the human characters feel thoroughly modern (by which I mean, of the present moment) in their sensibilities. But who knows? Maybe rigid 19th century secret agents were really about consent, and our belief that this is not the case stems from the broader backlash against care for and about others in the 21st century.
Now that I’ve nerded about things historical, let’s talk romance!
This is a romance that rewards readers who are immersed in the genre. When Eli is introduced—stern demeanor and luscious mouth—I know exactly what I’m getting here, and Biller hits all the beats. Grumpy man bemused by the chaos in which he finds himself? Yup. Protective instincts activated? Yup. Extremely inconvenient lust? Yup again. I must admit that there might be a bit of shorthand here, that Biller is relying on readers bringing their understanding of genre to the book to really make things like a sternness or a desire to see someone come undone carry the necessary weight. But since I am steeped in romance-talk, I didn’t care, and, in fact, found great joy in seeing the familiar tropes in a new setting.
Furthermore, the writing is just…joyful. There’s no other way I know to describe it. While the characters are undergoing some seriously stressful situations and are carrying some serious past trauma, the tone remains light throughout. Sincere moments are punctuated by levity—provided by both the narrator and the characters’ dialogue. Take this scene, which occurs after Eli has confessed his deep, dark, violent secret to Maria:
“I know you, Eli,” she said, softly. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me.”
“How can you know that?” he snapped. “You don’t know me . I’ve been in your life two weeks, Maria. Two weeks.”
“You saved Jakob’s orchids.”
She shrugged. “That’s when I knew I could trust you, I suppose. I didn’t realize it until a bit later. But…you saved a stranger’s orchids, just to make me feel better. You picked them up so gently, and you covered their roots with soil, and you…you saved them. Not to mention my life .” She smiled. “And let’s not forget my ballroom floors.”
He ignored this attempt at levity. “You can’t base your estimations of a person’s character on…on horticulture.”
She frowned, a hint of that regal Wallner expression in her eyes. “Of course I can.”
This is a serious moment for these characters, as they reveal themselves and their vulnerabilities. But even here, we get those hints of joy, with the light banter at the conclusion of the conversation.
In case you’re reading this review to hear about things like the plot…well, there’s a lot of plot, and a lot of characters with very complicated relationships with each other. The conspiracy builds slowly, until all of a sudden, we’re in full-blown “What is even happening?!?” mode (or at least the characters are). I felt the ending was perhaps a bit rushed, but all the pieces do tie neatly together in the end—and some, if not all, of the twists were unexpected.
Here’s the TL;DR: I am a mega romance nerd. I am mega into romance, and I am mega nerdy. (Look, these are just the facts.) And I enjoyed reading this book. A lot.
A content note: more than one person gets murdered in cold blood on the page. It was unexpected, but not, I think, gratuitous.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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