Masks and Shadows: A grand, glorious opera of a fantasy novel

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Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis fantasy book reviewsMasks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

A selfish prince, a bitter royal wife, a frivolous royal mistress; a lonely widow, a plucky servant girl, a cynical singer; a dastardly plot, a dangerous elemental, a spy, an alchemist (or maybe two); royal banquets, fraught performance rehearsals, and even a bit of cross-dressing at a masquerade ball. Stephanie Burgis’s Masks and Shadows packs in all that and more; there’s Hadyn and the Enlightenment as well.

Carlo Morelli is a castrato, famed throughout Europe for his ethereal voice. Morelli does not seem to mourn the loss of his physical “manhood;” instead he thinks that his peasant parents probably saved his life, rescuing him from starvation. He has prospered from his performances, but his sympathies still lie with the peasant class. On his way to the Esterhaza Palace in Hungary, a guest of Prince Nikolaus, Morelli reflects that he is sharing his conveyance with a probable Prussian spy and as well as a notorious alchemist.

Meanwhile, at the palace, recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck and her maid Anna struggle to fit in at the royal court. It’s awkward for Charlotte, who is virtuous, because her sister Sophie is the Prince’s latest mistress, sitting openly at his side while his wife, the Princess, takes her meals in her suite. Anna loves to sing. Joseph Hadyn is a robust secondary character in this story, and much of the action centers around an original opera commissioned for the Prince. Charlotte is also musical and plays the harpsichord. This will bring her into contact with Morelli as the book progresses.

In the first fifty pages we have two missing singer/actors and a potential scandal, the introduction of saboteurs, a spy, an alchemist, a plot against the Prince, and a smoke-elemental creature. Burgis still makes time for Anna to be “discovered” as a soprano to replace the missing woman, and for Corelli and Charlotte to have several awkward run-ins, because obviously they are going to fall in love and that won’t be made easy. With the spy, the alchemist and another alchemist who is also proficient in mesmerism, and the plot of the “Brotherhood” against the Prince, this is a jam-packed plot, briskly paced, with lots of nice tidbits about Joseph Haydn, the Enlightenment, music, opera and romance.

We see the elemental creature, and how dangerous it is, quite early in the story. We also watch the callous behavior of Prince Nikolaus create rebels and turncoats within his own court. This time period, and this part of Europe, was very interesting, both artistically and politically, and I wish that Burgis had bothered to give us a tiny bit more exposition. The relationship of the Esterhazy family to the Habsberg monarchy, the tensions with both Prussia and France, were complicated issues and I would have liked to have understood a little bit more about what was happening with the various factions in Masks and Shadows.

I loved the courtship of Morelli and Charlotte, though, and most particularly how Burgis dealt with discrimination. Sophie and Charlotte talk earnestly about whether Morelli should be addressed as female, since he’s “not really a man.” With Sophie, this seems like malice, but in Charlotte’s case she is genuinely uncomfortable with him, at least at first, because she doesn’t know what to think. Morelli’s issues, as a peasant who made good, are more about class and privilege, but that doesn’t keep him from misconstruing Charlotte’s comments and getting upset about them.

This book is quite well balanced; the romance plays out against a complex plot of treachery and murder. In a few places I thought Charlotte’s sentiments about the Enlightenment came out of nowhere — she offends the Prince and others when she opines that if the aristocrats were dressed in servants’ clothes, no one would know they weren’t servants. This is seen as a dangerously democratic point of view. I’m not sure where Charlotte came by that point of view, since it doesn’t seem to be part of her own upbringing or reading. Still, Charlotte is not a twenty-first character inserted into the story; her conflicts over her sense of duty, and her initial discomfort around Morelli ground her firmly in the eighteenth century.

The biggest joy of this book is the music. Burgis imagines Joseph Haydn as the genial “Papa Hadyn” of Mozart’s reminiscences. He is a delight, and a nice contrast to the backstabbing, double-dealing characters surrounding him. The climax, set in the lush opera house, is tense and over-the-top, befitting its operatic setting.

I would say that the weakest thing here is the magical system itself, which is supposed to include alchemical magic but seems instead to be people standing at various points of a geometrical design and chanting things. There is also the elemental creature and the use of mesmerism on a grand scale. When you add in the fact that two of these systems are fighting each other, complexity becomes “busyness.” I think this could have been simplified; at least one of these dangerous plots doesn’t need magic, for instance. Gunpowder would have worked just fine. Still, the book was a gorgeous, glorious opera of a story, and Charlotte and Morelli dancing together at the masquerade was a wonderful scene. Masks and Shadows is a scrumptious parfait of a book with just enough historical fact to make me think about it after I was finished. A delight.

Publication date: April 12, 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.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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4 comments

  1. Oooh, I want that.

  2. This sounds marvelous. Great review, Marion!

  3. This sounds SO GOOD. :D

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