Review: Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
Published by Pyr on April 12th 2016
The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. 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.
Masks and Shadows is a delight of a book full of mystery, music, court politics and romance. Oh, and lets not forget the nefarious shadows and disturbing deaths. This was a quick and wonderful read for me, I read it in about a day and really enjoyed just immersing myself if the world and characters Burgis created.
While we get several different POVs in this, I really felt Charlotte was the central character. A young widow, she has decided to visit her younger sister at Eszterháza Palace. This is a wonderful place, or appears to be at a surface glance, where Prince Niko has built his own opera house complete with one of the most renowned conductors of the time. The music and opera were a wonderful feature of this story, giving rich details and wonderful characters and interplay. Maybe I am just a sucker for stories that feature theaters and performers, but regardless, this was very well done.
We quickly learn that Charlotte is a person who is always scrambling to please others and abide by the rules. If anyone has expectations of her, she does whatever she can to not let them down, even when their expectations may not match her desires. Exteriorly, she is anything but a rebel. But we also quickly see that she is not a mindless person that just blindly does and accepts everything. Charlotte is very much a thinker. She has a sharp mind and has no problems at least internally evaluating and judging situations and people with eyes that do not just blindly accept protocol.
So when she meets Carlo Morelli, Europe’s leading castrato they quickly realize they are of like mind. This is an interesting pairing. The castrato is welcomed as a guest and performer but is not of noble birth. There is also the whole stigma of being a castrato and how that impacts his interactions with people of both genders. And here is Charlotte, who while maintains opinions of her own, also does not tend to go against the grain publicly. She is very responsible and forthright. When bits of chemistry start to spark between them, there is no denying it. But it is also a social dilemma that neither Charlotte nor Carlo ever anticipated being in. She is a lady of good standing, and while it may be not be unheard of to have flings with a castrato, Charlotte is not they type for a casual fling. A relationship between a noble lady and castrato? That would indeed be rebellious and quite scandalous. The romance in this I felt was very well done. It was never overwhelming, it never changed who the characters were, but it was definitely still a great feature.
The fantastical element of this comes in the form of mystery and shadows. Two runaway performers are found mutilated and drained of blood. There are hints of a secret society that may or may not be entirely human, glimpses of shadows, rumors of folklore demons. Pretty much there is a dark underside of this seemingly perfect palace that you get short glimpses of as things start to go wrong.
Overall, this is just a wonderfully enjoyable story that immersed me in the setting and intrigued me with the secrets. Definitely recommend.