While I’ve not been writing, I’ve been reading to recharge my batteries. I tackled two recent historical fantasy novels, Stephanie Burgis’s Congress of Secrets (2016) and Walter H. Hunt’s Elements of Mind (2014). Odds are you might like one or the other, but probably not both: Burgis for romance, Hunt for looming horrors.
Normally, I don’t tackle romances, but Burgis lured me in because her novel is set during the fabulous Congress of Vienna in 1814. This was the peace conference that settled Europe’s political organization after the Napoleonic wars. Burgis does name-check the main figures and gives them things to do that actually affect the plot, so they aren’t completely ornamental, which is good. (Though Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan, loses out to the Naked Angel in page count. Stephanie Burgis, I know whose side you’re on!) And I really liked the political side of her resolution of the crisis at the climax of the book. It was clever, period. Burgis demonstrated she understands the implications of her own premises; that’s a rarer talent than one would expect.
The alchemical magic and the romance do not fare as well. Considering how pivotal the alchemy is, we don’t learn enough of it for the magical resolution to the climax to carry the same level of plausibility and rightness; indeed, Burgis throws in a romantic twist that gives that resolution too much the flavor of a deus ex machina. And the romance is a bit too formulaic. Please save me from yet another couple who begin by hating each other and end up in bed together! That said, again, Burgis did a good job of laying the romance’s foundation within her story.
So, if you like historical fantasy romances, I’d say give this novel a read. Or if you like to see a writer who understands how to construct a version of this world with magic in it, then, yeah, it’s worth a try. If romance isn’t your strong field, but you love history that is important but also has more than a breath of scandal, try reading an actual history of the Congress. Burgis recommends Harold Nicolson’s The Congress of Vienna (1946); I’d offer 2007’s Rites of Peace by Adam Zamoyski as a more recent popular account.
Some of you might dimly remember the Congress of Vienna from a modern European history course. But very, very few of you will know about the early history of animal magnetism or mesmerism in Britain. Oddly enough, a lot of the beliefs of the early mesmerists shape today’s popular view of hypnotism, i.e., the idea that the hypnotist overpowers the will of his subject. One of their real discoveries was that mesmerism could be used as an anesthetic to reduce or eliminate pain in surgeries. Indeed, James Esdaile (1808 – 1859) ran a “mesmeric” hospital in British India!
So when I found Esdaile’s name on the back blurb of Elements of Mind, I was hooked. Hunt’s novel assumes the powers of animal magnetism to control other people were real, and that they were allied with other apparently supernatural powers. Using historical figures who were interested in mesmerism in Britain in the 1840s, he constructs a story of supernatural and political power struggles that come near to costing a young woman her sanity, and almost costs the life of his protagonist, the rather lower-class Rev. William Davey, now the not-much-loved leader of the English mesmerists.
The story has the air of Wilkie Collins about it, using various kinds of narrative to unfold the story, much as Collins did in The Moonstone. Davey, who begins as the unchallenged leader of the English mesmerists, is confronted by powers and threats even beyond his imagining, as he tried to recover James Esdaile’s great secret for Davey’s society of mesmerists.
There’s a lot to like here. Hunt builds his characters with reasonable strengths and weaknesses. The use of mesmerism in the early parts of the story seems like a reasonable extrapolation of how it might have developed if mesmerism had really been a force. And the play between the British and Indian ends of the plot usually works well, though the Indian end sometimes sinks into stereotypes.
My biggest complaint is with the ending. I can see what Hunt was aiming for, but the pacing at the end is off. Hunt finishes too quickly for the significance of the ending he wanted. The reader’s apt to go away thinking, “good read, but looks like he had a page limit and had to cut the ending short.”
Hunt’s is a slow but enjoyable read for people who enjoy intellectual horror. Thanks to its unfamiliar subject matter, James Esdaile and William Davey hardly being household names, a lot of people who might otherwise like it will pass it by. But if you’re tempted, and want some background history, pick up and read Alison Winter’s Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (1998).