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Masks and Shadows


Masks and Shadows

MASKS AND SHADOWS by Stephanie Burgis is one of the best historical fantasies to emerge so far this year. Taking place in the Esterháza Palace in 18th-century Hungary, the story is grand in its scope and magnificent in its delivery.

The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most famous castrato singer of his time, is rattling in a carriage across the Hungarian plains. He’s headed to the court of his latest patron, powerful Hungarian noble Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Accompanying him are a cantankerous alchemist and an undercover spy working for Prussia, the archenemy of the Holy Roman Empire Prince Nikolaus serves.

"While telling an absolutely unique tale, [Burgis] mixes history, romance, fantasy, opera and mystery into a melodic concoction that is music to our ears."

Conscious of the offenses others heap upon him and how they regard him as a “freak,” Carlo is shocked to find a kindred spirit in one of the royal guests. Charlotte, Baroness von Steinbeck, is everything he’s ever wanted in a companion --- intelligent, beautiful, musically gifted --- but societal boundaries keep their burgeoning bond at bay.

Lotte herself is in quite a quandary. A conservative German widow, she struggles to deal with the behavior of her sister, the charming yet airheaded Sophie, who is the prince’s mistress. The black-and-white, sexual dichotomy between the sisters --- one licentious and stupid, the other brilliant and chaste --- is one of the book’s few weaknesses. Both sisters are one-note characters; one is criminalized by her sexuality, the other ostensibly praised for her lack of such feelings, although Charlotte gets a little deeper as the novel goes on and she discovers her inner desires.

Amidst all this courtly chaos is a mysterious plot to overthrow the Habsburg emperor and empress, fronted by a shadowy, cult-like organization. As Burgis dazzles readers with her lush descriptions and magical world-building, the tension she builds throughout the novel comes to a resounding crescendo by the story’s climax.

In MASKS AND SHADOWS, Burgis deals out political intrigue as easily as she does the passion and elegance of the Esterházy court. While telling an absolutely unique tale, she mixes history, romance, fantasy, opera and mystery into a melodic concoction that is music to our ears. Readers will want to linger in this beautifully evocative world long after the book has come to an end.

Reviewed by Carly Silver on May 20, 2016

Masks and Shadows
by Stephanie Burgis