Masks and Shadows is the first published adult novel by Stephanie Burgis, author of the award-winning Kat, Incorrigible series. This historical fantasy, set almost entirely within the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary in 1779, is an enjoyable story with conspiracy, romance, and music—the latter of which Stephanie Burgis has firsthand experience with since she studied music history as a Fulbright Scholar and worked for an opera company.
Shortly after becoming a widow, Baroness Charlotte von Steinbeck is invited to visit Eszterháza Palace by her younger sister Sophie, a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Esterházy. She is delighted to accept Sophie’s invitation since she hasn’t seen her sister in twelve years and is also interested in hearing the work of Herr Haydn as a gifted musician herself. While the concerts are indeed heavenly, Eszterháza Palace isn’t at all what Charlotte expected…
Charlotte is shocked to discover that her sister’s title of “lady-in-waiting” is a sham: she’s actually living at the palace because she is publicly acknowledged as Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s mistress, even though each of them is married to other people. Although Charlotte disapproves, Sophie’s improper conduct soon becomes the least of her worries as strange occurrences alert her and another visitor, the renowned castrato Signor Morelli, to trouble brewing within the palace. A conspiracy fueled by dark magic is planned and it will have dire consequences for the audience of an anticipated opera event—and the House of Habsburg as a whole—if it succeeds.
Masks and Shadows is an entertaining book with a unique setting. Hungary in the late 1700s is not a time period I’ve encountered in fiction inspired by history before, and although I don’t have in-depth knowledge of the history, I thought the author did a wonderful job with showing a sense of time and place that worked with this story through small details and the characters’ attitudes. It’s a very readable book without a lot of infodumping or dense description, and in many ways this book with focus on music and opera reminded me of a performance itself. Masks and Shadows is divided into three acts with the first introducing a cast of characters who provide different pieces of the big picture. Almost immediately, it hints at danger within the palace, and this unease grows as it leads up to the big event toward the end. It’s also a very dialogue-heavy book, and there were occasionally some misunderstandings and situations that reminded me of those from Shakespeare.
Societal issues such as gender and class are woven into it as well. In addition to being a story about an evil conspiracy, it’s also largely about Charlotte’s struggle against the social mores that dictate how a baroness should behave. She’s a very proper lady, but she and the renowned singer Signor Carlo Morelli (who has his own struggles with the way people view him due to being a castrato) become attracted to each other—and as her sister lectures her, this is a disgraceful match that will make her a pariah if she chooses to pursue it.
Sophie exhibits the attitudes of the higher classes, and while this shows what Charlotte is expected to think and how difficult it must be at times for her to even contemplate other beliefs, she is a very frustrating character to read about. She seems extraordinarily oblivious when she does chastise Charlotte for her feelings or exclaim at the immorality of two singers running away together when she never so much as questions how her position affects her own husband or the Princess, whom she makes rather snide and unfair comments about. Sophie’s only redeeming qualities seem to be that she does seem to truly care for her sister and the Prince; she also doesn’t see any problems with stating that certain people are beneath her—when they’re standing right in front of her. Sophie doesn’t seem at all self aware, and though the two sisters seem to have been very close in the past due to their shared experience with a disapproving mother, I can’t help but feel Charlotte must be some sort of saint to deal with her eighteen years later.
Although I consider Charlotte the central main character, there are a lot of pages dedicated to various other characters, mainly:
- Carlo Morelli, an incredible singer who rose to perform before princes (and is now starting to feel more jaded about the nobility than honored to be in their presence)
- Anna, Charlotte’s maid who becomes a singer due to her beautiful voice
- Franz, an actor who is manipulated into joining the conspiracy
- Sophie’s husband Friedrich, who is also manipulated into being part of the big conspiracy
After Charlotte, my favorite character to follow was Anna. She’s always loved to sing, and after Carlo hears her voice, he recommends she fill an opening with the opera singers. It’s a dream come true but also a challenge since she is untrained, can’t read music, and does not know Italian. She is also incredibly brave and heroic and has a big role in the ending.
Though not a point of view character, the Princess is also wonderful. She mainly avoids the public, yet she always seems to know everything that is going on in the palace.
Despite being one of the more entertaining books I’ve read this year, Masks and Shadows did have some drawbacks that kept it from being one of my favorites I’ve read lately. It was a little difficult to get into in the beginning since it did jump back and forth between characters a lot, and the only one I was immediately interested in was Charlotte. Since it is a relatively short book focusing on quite a few characters, there’s not a lot of room for in-depth character development. Charlotte is probably the most developed of the bunch, and although they do have motivations and personal journeys, more time is dedicated to moving the plot along than exploring the people involved. Due to this, their actual personalities do not set them apart from others I’ve read about, even if does seem to fit with its performance-like structure. Lastly—and I want to make clear that this is not a criticism but a matter of personal taste since I think it takes immense skill to write a book as effortlessly readable as this one—the writing is not beautiful or extraordinary.
Once it gets past the beginning, Masks and Shadows is an engaging book, and I admire the author’s ability with weaving history, music, and societal issues into a compelling story. Although I did enjoy reading it very much, there wasn’t much that stood out about it that was different or notable other than a rarely used setting and the emphasis on music, however, and it didn’t have the depth of character development that appeals to me as a reader.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the author/publisher.
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