Narrated by Derek Perkins
Vienna Waltz is a real treat for fans of meaty, intricately plotted and well-researched historical fiction. Set during the Congress of Vienna in 1814, when the ambassadors from the major powers in Europe – Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and France – gathered in order to seek a long-term peace following the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, the book is the first in a series of mystery/espionage novels featuring Malcolm Rannoch, attaché to the British delegation, and his half-French, half-Spanish wife, Suzanne.
While ostensibly a diplomat and bureaucrat, Malcolm is in fact one of the British Foreign minister’s most successful intelligence agents – he doesn’t like the word “spy”. His wife is equally tough and resourceful and, like her husband, adept at keeping secrets – many of which pertain to their hasty marriage two years previously. We learn throughout the course of the story that theirs is a marriage of convenience, albeit one “with benefits”, as they have a son. Malcolm literally stumbled across Suzanne, bruised and bloodied following an attack on her home – during an intelligence mission in the Spanish mountains. After escorting her to the British Embassy in Lisbon it seemed that marriage was the most logical way to afford her his protection.
As a working partnership in the service of the British government, they are a superb team, and as parents, they dote on their son, Colin. But as a couple, their relationship is shrouded in the unspoken, and they are quite guarded around each other when it comes to expressing their feelings. Malcolm, the grandson of a duke, had never intended to marry, given the frequency with which he is required to risk his life and the example afforded him by his parents of a disastrous marriage in which both partners were frequently and blatantly unfaithful. And Suzanne is a mystery – to Malcolm and to the listener – although some aspects of her past are revealed in this story. Yet while the pair views their marriage as one of expediency, it’s obvious to everyone who sees them together that they care very deeply for each other.
The romantic angle in the book is fairly low key, although it is integral to the story. At the beginning, Suzanne receives a note from Princess Tatiana Kirsanova, one of the most beautiful women present at the Congress. The princess is known to have taken many lovers from the highest echelons of society, including both Tsar Alexander of Russia and Prince Metternich, Foreign Minister of Austria. And, if rumour is to be believed, Suzanne’s own husband is one of those men currently in receipt of the lady’s favours.
The note directs Suzanne to come to the Princess’ apartments in the early hours of the morning – but when she arrives, it’s to find the Princess dead and Malcolm kneeling over the body. Before she can ask any questions, however, the Tsar and Metternich arrive – both of whom also received notes from the Princess asking them to meet her. The murder of Princess Tatiana sets in motion a train of events which lead to the uncovering of many secrets – both political and personal – culminating in the discovery of a plan which could upset the very delicate balance of not only the Congress, but Europe itself.
Ms Grant has penned a brilliantly complex story of mystery and intrigue in which her masterful grasp of the period and the precarious political situation of the time shines through at every stage. As a result, it’s one of those audiobooks that needs to be listened to in good-sized chunks, so that the listener can keep track of exactly who is doing what, with whom, where and why. That’s not to say it’s a difficult listen – far from it. I’d just say that it needs to be savoured in order to fully appreciate such a well-constructed and multi-faceted story.
There is a large cast of characters – both real and fictional – and Ms Grant does a superb job in weaving them all together, although I will admit that I did occasionally find myself referring to the print edition (in which there is a list of dramatis personae) in order to remind myself of who some of the many princes, dukes and countesses are in relation to each other. Such a large cast must have provided quite a challenge for narrator Derek Perkins, but he does a splendid job with a vast array of European accents (French, German, Russian), and is able to switch between them seamlessly and with what seems like little effort. Each character is clearly differentiated, and while there were occasions I wasn’t able to discern who was speaking until the text gave me that information, I think it was due to a problem with my recall than to any fault in Mr Perkins’ performance.
His portrayals of Malcolm and Suzanne work really well, and while I initially thought it odd that he has chosen not to give Suzanne an accent, I realised after I’d been listening for a while that it’s actually a very good way of distinguishing her from all the other female characters, as almost all the other ladies in the story are performed using Russian, German or French accents. Malcolm’s crisp delivery and slight hint of a Scottish accent suit him perfectly and also single him out easily and clearly for the listener. I do have one reservation, however, which is to do with the portrayal of the secondary female characters – some of them sounded too old. Tsarina Elisabeth, for example, sounds as though she’s verging on the elderly at times, so I was surprised when, late in the book, she’s revealed to be around thirty-four.
Other than that, however, Mr Perkins gives a very accomplished performance. His voice is pleasantly mellow, and the narrative is both well-paced and subtly nuanced. Vienna Waltz is one of those books which has been sitting on my TBR pile for some time, and now I’m sorry I didn’t get around to it sooner. The positive side to the delay, however, is that there are several more novels and novellas for me to listen to before the next book comes out in Spring 2015, and I’m really looking forward to listening to more adventures with the Rannochs.
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: You can listen out loud
Genre: Historical Mystery with strong Romantic elements
Publisher: Audible Studios