Book Review: Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Masks and ShadowsMasks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Pyr (April 12, 2016)

Length: 300 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

This spring, Masks and Shadows rocketed its way up to my most highly anticipated list. With its themes of palace intrigue, passionate romance, secret conspiracies and dark magic, the book sounded right up my alley and I am pleased to say that Stephanie Burgis’ first adult historical fantasy did not disappoint.

The story takes place in 1779, transporting readers to the extravagant court of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy of Hungary. Charlotte is a widowed young baroness, invited to stay at the palace during her mourning period by her sister Sophie, the prince’s mistress. The entire place is also abuzz with the arrival of Europe’s foremost castrato singer Carlo Morelli, here to enjoy the operas and grand musical productions that have made the Eszterháza so famous. Other visitors and guests that have come from afar include a Prussian spy and a notorious alchemist, setting the stage for the main event.

However, tragedy strikes as the prince’s opera troupe loses two of its most important performers. Franz Pichler, another actor, is punished in connection to his colleagues’ disappearance, while Anna, a young maid in Charlotte’s employ is suddenly vaulted to stardom when she is chosen to replace one of the missing singers. A sinister plot is hatching in the hands of a shadowy group at the palace, and as both Charlotte and Carlo are drawn into their mysterious web, the two of them are in turn drawn to each other even though they know deep down that a future together is forbidden. Still, if the threat to the royal family is not stopped, there might not even be a future for anyone at the Eszterháza.

Even though Masks and Shadows features a large cast of characters, it was surprisingly easy to follow along with the story. In fact, the book was a very fast read, thanks to its great plot and smooth pacing. And despite being a historical fiction novel, never once did I feel that the narrative was bogged down by extraneous historical detail. The story’s main focus was on the characters and their relationships, which worked really well for me.

Two of the more prominent players were Charlotte and Carlo, whose interactions provide the basis for the main romantic arc in this novel. Their romance is a deliciously slow-burning one that doesn’t feel like it overshadows the rest of the story, which I found really refreshing. The two of them are also unconventional protagonists, one being a noble woman who has just lost her husband and the other being a common born castrato singer. Despite his incredible talent and fame, few people at court see Carlo past the fact he is a castrated man and his lower status as a performer. Meanwhile, Charlotte is prevented from following her heart by her selfish flake of a little sister, to whom she still feels loyal even though the younger woman treats her like crap. I despised Sophie, and wished that Charlotte had shown more backbone in the face of her sister’s disparaging, but this also underscored how Charlotte’s personality was shaped and why her actions later on in the book are so significant.

Like I said, the romance is just one thread in a story which also features a mystery plot as well as a coming-of-age tale. The speculative element comes in the form of an alchemist’s dark magic and ability to summon entities from another realm, and gradually it is revealed how this plays into the larger picture. Anna the 16-year-old former-maid-turned-opera-singer also has a strong presence throughout the novel, making me think Masks and Shadows might be as much about her as it is about Charlotte. I was impressed at how flawlessly everything came together and resolved the story without leaving any loose ends.

You also don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy the story; I knew next to nothing about this period or the historical figures, but I had a great time with the book all the same. And actually, it was fascinating to learn more about the setting afterwards to find out how much of real history Burgis had incorporated into her story, like how 1779 was indeed a watershed year for famous composer Joseph Haydn, whose principle patron at the time was Nicolaus I, or the fact that the Eszterháza main opera house did burn down that very same year (though the book has a much more interesting explanation for that fire!) There must have been a lot of research devoted to this novel.

On the whole, I was really pleased by the balance. It feels like there’s something for everyone in this enchanting novel, whether you’re a fantasy reader, an enthusiast of European history, or even a music lover. Masks and Shadows is a captivating read with genuine wide appeal, which I’m sure will garner Stephanie Burgis many new fans.


Mogsy 2

23 Comments on “Book Review: Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis”

  1. My inner music geek is rejoicing at this review – Haydn was one of my favourite composers growing up, and I had to perform his pieces quite a few times! I am a bit of a history buff but I know nothing about 18th century Hungary, so I’m stoked to read what sounds like a great novel while also learning some new things. Hurrah for more historical fantasy! 😀


  2. I really love the historical aspect of this book, set in a country whose history I’m unfamiliar with. And I’m actually fascinated with castrati, I remember reading Anne Rice’s book Cry to Heaven and feeling so sad for them. I’m hoping the story gets more into that but it sounds like it’s mostly going to focus on the political intrigue and characters (I’m about half way through).


  3. I only just found out about this one today (sometimes I feel like I’m living under a rock!) and well I’m definitely intrigued. Beyond that gorgeously colourful cover, I love the historical setting, the sound of the romance and naturally, the fantasy elements! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this new-to-me read 😀 Glad you enjoyed it!!


  4. I can hardly wait to start this one: Edelweiss just granted me a review copy and I’m beyond happy – after seeing several favorable mentions of this book these past few weeks I’ve built great expectations that keep being confirmed by the reviews I read.
    When a great cast of characters can be made to work flawlessly (just like an opera cast! 😀 ) the story is bound to be a good one.
    Great review, thanks for sharing!


  5. I love music and history as well as fantasy. And since you were pleased with how all three elements came together, that makes me even more excited to check out Masks & Shadows. 🙂 Great review, Mogsy!


  6. I really enjoyed this – it is incredibly easy to read. I’d never heard of a castrato before! So that was something new – flipping heck! I did wonder if there might be more to come?
    Lynn 😀


  7. I did know of castrati singers before starting this, but I remember when I first heard of them I was like, flipping heck too! They did that to boys just so they can grow up to have amazing singing voices? I can see why it was outlawed eventually. If you go to wikipedia there’s actually a clip of a castrato singing, recorded from a long time ago. It’s interesting!


  8. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

  9. Pingback: Review of Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis | Fantasy Cafe | Reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books

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