Stephanie Burgis' Masks and Shadows was published by Pyr in April 2016.
Information about Stephanie Burgis:
Stephanie Burgis was born in Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband, writer Patrick Samphire, and their children. Before becoming a fulltime writer, she studied music history as a Fulbright Scholar in Vienna, Austria, and worked as a website editor for a British opera company. She has published over thirty short stories for adults. Kat, Incorrigible (US)/A Most Improper Magick (UK) won the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Début Children’s Novel by a British writer. It was followed by Renegade Magic/A Tangle of Magicks and Stolen Magic/A Reckless Magick.
Click here to visit her official website.
Information about Masks and Shadows:
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.
A REVIEW OF STEPHANIE BURGIS' MASKS AND SHADOWS
Stephanie Burgis' Masks and Shadows is a first-rate historical fantasy novel for adult readers who are interested in lush, romantic and well written stories. It offers engaging entertainment and thrilling moments to readers who are willing to let themselves be immersed in a good story. It has a wide target audience, because it will appeal to many readers.
Before reading Masks and Shadows, I took the opportunity to read the author's young adult novels (The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson), because I was intrigued by her fiction. I wanted to see what kind of fiction she writes and how she has developed as an author since her first novels. I was pleased to notice that after writing a good YA fantasy trilogy she has written an excellent and entertaining novel which surpasses her previous works (she found a permanent place on my reading list, becase I loved everything about this novel).
As many readers are most likely aware of, historical fantasy novels are at their best excellent entertainment, because many such novels thrill us with a combination of various elements. I'm glad to say that Masks and Shadows is one of the best and most entertaining novels of its kind, because Stephanie Burgis fluently combines alchemy, opera, intrigue and historical elements to create a rich story.
Here are a few words about the story:
- The events take place in Hungary at the Eszterháza Palace in 1779.
- Charlotte von Steinbeck hears from her sister Sophie that Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (Nikolaus I) has invited a castrato to stay at the Eszterháza Palace. She has accepted her sister's invitation to spend time at the palace, but wonders if it was such a good idea after all to accept the invitation, because Eszterháza is anything but what she had expected...
- Carlo Morelli, the most famous castrato in Europe, is travelling towards the Eszterháza Palace in a carriage with the most notorious alchemist in Europe and a Prussian spy. It is his first visit to the palace...
- Anna is a newly arrived maid at the palace and doesn't know anybody there yet. She has followed her mistress there after Baron von Steinbeck's death, because the idea of an exciting adventure had appealed to her...
- Friedrich, Sophie's husband, gets a letter from Vienna. The letter informs him that his time for action has come at last...
- Soon Charlotte and Carlo find themselves caught up in a web of deceit, lies and dangerous political intrigue...
This is the beginning of a story that is rich in detail and lush in atmosphere with a strong musical theme intervowen into it. The author gradually builds up tension towards the climax, which will satisfy readers.
The cast of characters is diverse and large, and the characterisation is wonderfully nuanced and poignant. The author brings each of the important characters alive with her descriptions, but she also pays attention to writing about the minor characters who enrich the story and its amostphere.
Charlotte von Steinbeck is a decent and proper woman who is anything but her awful sister Sophie, who has become the mistress of Prince Nikolaus. She is a widow who has lost her husband and has retreated to the countryside to rest and regain her confidence.
Carlo Morelli is a famous and common born castrato who arrives at the palace as a guest. He has become a rich man who has been invited into many places. He is observant and has his own opinions about people and how they live their lives.
Anna, Charlotte's maid, is an interesting character, because she's a natural born singer with a good voice. She's untrained, but very talented. It was fun to read about her training.
The famous composer Joseph Haydn makes an interesting appearance in this novel. His position at the Prince's Palace is described well. Because I like classical music, I enjoyed reading about him and his work.
The author fluently wrote about relationships between the characters. Reading about what happened between Charlotte and Carlo was especially enjoyable, because they were strangers who became acquainted and got to know each other. Their feelings and lives were explored exceptionally well.
I think that readers who are familiar with European history will greatly enjoy this novel. Stephanie Burgis beautifully evokes a distinct vision of 18th century Hungary and brings the glory of the Eszterháza Palace fully to life with her words and sentences. She writes effortlessly about what happens at the palace and fluently describes what kind of lives its owners, its performers and visitors have and how they deal with problems. I think it's good to mention that you don't necessarily have to know anything about history in order to enjoy the story, because the author makes sure that you'll have a great time reading it.
The contraints of society are explored in a realistic way in this novel. The author focuses on writing about many little things that affect the characters' lives and tells how they behave in the presence of others. The characters have a lot on their mind, because their actions reflect on themselves. Some of them have made promises under dubious circumstances and feel trapped, because disobeying commands would lead to severe consequences, and others have other kind of problems.
I think it's great that the author writes about 18th century Hungary, because it's a seriously neglected setting in this kind of fiction. Victorian novels have become increasingly popular during the recent couple of years, but unfortunately the 18th century is not very popular. In my opinion, reading about this era is fascinating, because it's the Age of Enlightenment.
The speculative fiction elements manifest themselves in the form of alchemy, the alchemist's dark magic and summoning of elementals. These paranormal elements add a lot of fascination and richness to the story.
Classical music lovers will find a lot to love in this novel. The author writes fascinatingly about opera, music and singers. The characters discuss music, their work and their lives in a realistic way, because many of them have signed a contract that binds them. The scandal concerning the two opera performers who have run away together adds additional charm to the story.
The author addresses the brutalities related to castration in a realistic and thought-provoking way. Everyone who is familiar with classical music and its dark past probably knows that castrato singers used to be popular and sought-after performers because of their beautiful and high voice (they were the predecessors of modern countertenors). In this novel, the author writes thought-provokingly about how Carlo feels about his life and what it would've been like if he had not been subjected to the brutal act of mutilation.
The author's writing style is excellent and engaging, and her descriptive prose is a pleasure to read. I was amazed at how well she wrote about the happenings and the characters, because she never let the story become cumbersome or dull. She blends historical accuracy and many historical details with fresh and imaginative fiction in a stunning way.
In certain ways, Masks and Shadows is a bit similar to Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven, but is wholly original and features a different kind of a story. I think that readers who have read Cry to Heaven will most likely enjoy this novel.
Because I found this novel intriguing and entertaining, I'll soon read the author's next historical fantasy novel, Congress of Secrets. I have high expectations of it and look forward to reading it.
By the way, if you want to add a bit of additional enjoyment to your reading experience I recommend listening to classical music while reading the novel. When I read this novel, I listened to a few pieces composed by Joseph Haydn and invested a bit of time into listening to a couple of performances by the talented countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.
Stephanie Burgis' Masks and Shadows is an elegant literary symphony in which the author displays mastery of nuanced characterisation, romance, opera, intrigue and dark alchemy. It's a beautiful and lush novel filled with style, substance and deliciously dark moments. If you're intrigued by historical fantasy fiction with intrigue and romance elements, you should take a look at this novel, because it's brilliant entertainment.
Excellent historical fantasy fiction!