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.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Pyr (April 12, 2016)
Length: 300 pages
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.