Genre: Fantasy, Historical
Publisher: Pyr on April 5, 2016
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. View Spoiler » With Carlo in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s carriage, ride a Prussian spy and one of the most notorious alchemists in the Habsburg Empire. Already at Eszterháza is Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper sister of Prince Nikolaus’s mistress. Charlotte has retreated to the countryside to mourn her husband’s death. Now, she must overcome the ingrained rules of her society in order to uncover the dangerous secrets lurking within the palace’s golden walls. Music, magic, and blackmail mingle in a plot to assassinate the Habsburg Emperor and Empress–a plot that can only be stopped if Carlo and Charlotte can see through the masks worn by everyone they meet. « Hide Spoiler
If you’re a fan of historical fantasy, swoon-worthy romances, or classical music, then Stephanie Burgis’ standalone novel MASKS AND SHADOWS is a must-read.
The court of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy of Hungary, is a secluded yet opulent palace where the Prince lives with his wife…and his exuberant young mistress, Sophie. When Sophie invites her elder sister, the straight-laced widow Charlotte Von Steinbeck to Esterháza for the season, Charlotte has no idea of the political machinations, dark magic, and her own forbidden passions that await her discovery in the secluded court.
Meanwhile, the most famous castrati singer in Europe, Carlo Morelli, is growing tired of performing for gauche aristocrats in the hopes of advancing his status. Simultaneously viewed as a freak and as an object of desire for his otherness, Carlo has few friends and rarely lets down his guard. He is a man who has been granted the favour of royalty – surely he won’t be swept away by the quiet, buttoned up widow Baroness Von Steinbeck. But when Charlotte’s reserved exterior gives way to her passion for music, Carlo finds excuses to remain at Esterháza…endangering more than his heart in the process. The romance between Carlo and Charlotte was absolutely adorable! I love a good forbidden romance, and this one has one of the most unique conceits I’ve read about in quite some time. This is the perfect slow burn romance, and I highly recommend it to my fellow fantasy romance lovers out there!
With an atmospheric 18th century setting that draws heavily on music – particularly the composition and performance of opera – to create a lush background, MASKS AND SHADOWS is easily one of the most well researched historical fantasies I’ve read in years. Stephanie Burgis masterfully incorporates historical events and figures into the story, most notably the composer Joseph Haydn (love him) without making it feel as though she’s merely “name-dropping.” After reading her bio, I’m not surprised: Burgis has studied late-eighteenth-century opera and politics in Vienna and Esterháza at the doctoral level. Her passion for music and the time period absolutely shines through, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the overall effect.
The characters are also beautifully realized in MASKS AND SHADOWS, particularly the Charlotte and Carlo – and Charlotte’s maid turned opera star, Anna. There are five POV characters in the novel and each one has a distinct voice; combined with their unique positions within the court at Esterháza, this kept me frantically turning the pages to find out what was happening behind closed doors even when the plot was moving at a leisurely pace. This is a story about music, magic and love…and what happens when they go wrong, which means that there’s a ton of emotional drama to be found. I live for these kinds of stories!
Where I felt MASKS AND SHADOWS stumbled a bit was with the fantastical elements of the story, which were so understated that they ended up feeling underdeveloped. Dark alchemical magic, wielded by a creepy secret brotherhood (of course), was the extent of what we saw, but I was hoping for more. Even though Charlotte is the protagonist, she’s only impacted by magic a handful of times. Here’s hoping that this magic is further developed in CONGRESS OF SECRETS, Burgis’ recently released companion novel to MASKS AND SHADOWS. It’s high up on my TBR, so hopefully you’ll be seeing my thoughts on that one soon!