I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
Published by Pyr Books on April 12 2016
Genres: Adult, historical, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: A lush and romantic story of palace intrigue, with a supernatural subplot that adds a sense of danger to the tale.
The gorgeous colors on this cover initially attracted me to Masks and Shadows, like a bee to a beautiful flower, but I was happy to find an exciting story behind the cover that grabbed my attention and kept me reading. I hadn’t realized how much I was craving a romance, and this book came along at just the right time. Full of fascinating historical details, the story is based on real life people and locations and revolves around an opera company performing at Eszterháza Palace in Hungary in 1779.
Charlotte von Steinbeck is a widow, mourning the death of her much older husband, when she is invited by her sister Sophie to stay at Eszterháza Palace. Straight-laced Charlotte is shocked to find her sister has become the mistress of Prince Nikolaus, even more so because Sophie’s husband is employed at the palace and is very aware of their relationship. Also visiting the palace is a famous alchemist named Ignaz von Born and Carlo Morelli, a well-known castrato singer. Charlotte is immediately intrigued by Carlo when they first meet, and she isn’t prepared for the sparks that seem to fly whenever they are together.
But amidst the frivolity and music in the palace, a dark presence from the supernatural realm is trying to break free. Several of the palace’s visitors are being drawn into a dangerous plot, one which will threaten the lives of hundreds of people. As Charlotte and Carlo get closer, a trap is being set for everyone in the palace, a trap that may be impossible to escape.
My favorite parts of the story were the ones that revolved around the growing relationship between Charlotte and Carlo, the castrato. I would even go so far as to say that there wasn’t enough of their romance for me! Burgis’ writing felt strangely old-fashioned—most likely due to the time period she’s writing about—and this translated to a rather chaste romance that took me back to my days as a teen, reading my mom’s Barbara Cartland novels and holding my breath with anticipation each time the main couple was about to kiss. Charlotte and Carlo’s relationship is a slow burn until the last quarter of the novel, when they finally admit their feelings for each other. But Burgis jumps right over any sexual encounters, although it’s implied that they did indeed sleep together.
What really piqued my curiosity, though, was the fact that Carlo is a castrato, and I’ll admit I had to do a bit of internet research to see if their relationship would be feasible (it would). I did find it hard to believe that a woman would be attracted to a man with an extremely high voice, which a castrato would have. Charlotte remarks to herself that she’s strangely fascinated with Carlo’s “child-like” voice. In any event, I enjoyed their romance and wanted more!
Although Charlotte and Carlo could be considered “main” characters, this is almost an ensemble piece, as so many of the secondary characters play important roles. One of my favorites of these was Charlotte’s private maid Anna, who turns out to be a talented singer. After several of the musicians go missing, Anna is asked to join as a singer. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, but she’s terrified of venturing outside her comfort zone. I loved that Anna’s journey does not go smoothly: she can’t read music and she doesn’t speak Italian, and she must be taught these things by rote, which proves to be tedious and stressful.
The scenes involving the musicians, both rehearsing and performing, were delightfully addictive, especially since there was so much drama surrounding the characters. Jealousies, underhanded plots, rivalries and various romantic hook-ups are just a few of things you’ll encounter on stage and behind the scenes, when these volatile musicians get together. I was not surprised that the final climax of the story takes place in the theatre, since much of the action revolves around that location.
Masks and Shadows is a fantasy, but the fantasy elements were my least favorite part of the story. I honestly would have been happy simply reading about palace intrigue, secret plots, the drama surrounding the members of the opera company, and the romantic entanglements of the characters. Burgis’ bad guys use black magic to try to shift the balance of political power, but the final, dramatic moment was shockingly violent, and felt a bit out-of-place with the rest of the story. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, as Burgis drops subtle hints about the mysterious black smoke that lingers in the corridors of the palace, until later in the book when we finally learn what von Born is up to.
As far as I know, Masks and Shadows is a stand-alone, which is a nice change of pace from all the fantasy series out there. The ending was completely satisfying for me, and with no series cliff-hanger, I finished the book with a smile on my face. I think you will too.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.