I received an ARC of this book from the publisher for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion.
Title: Masks And Shadows
Author: Stephanie Burgis
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Romance
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.
First of all thanks to the publisher Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy for reaching out to me with the offer to review an ARC of Masks and Shadows! It had been on my wishlist for some time since it sounded so different compared to what I have been reading lately, so I was absolutely delighted.
I can honestly say I’ve never read a book with this premise before. A castrato, royalty, alchemists. political intrigue, opera, romance and mystery set against the backdrop of 18th century Hungary in a place called Esterhaza and in a palace nonetheless. The magical elements were some of the threads which weave together with the others mentioned above to form a tapestry which once visible, is astounding and shocking.
Now, I’ve never been to an opera but have seen a few on TV or in movies and the book brings to mind an opera perfomance. It is even written like a theatrical piece with ‘Acts’ instead of ‘parts’ and short scenes which often changes in perspective and reveals threads of the plot which comes together in the end to reveal the tapestry of deceit, murderous intentions and plots and at the center of it all a secret society hell-bent on overthrowing the monarchy.
The writer garners your interest from the start and holds it throughout with the various allusions and hints of mysterious happenings, which made me anxious to uncover these hidden truths, and she does this masterfully. The story is told from quite a few perspectives, but it was done so seamlessly that I never found it jarring but intrinsic to the whole plot, to allow the reader to be pulled into the whole mystery and trying to solve it with the tidbits of information revealed or alluded to, and the possible parts each character had to play in it all.
My favourite characters were the castrato with his barely concealed disdain for the monarchy and court politics, having reached a point in his life where he is fed up with it all. Charlotte was also quite an interesting character. I loved watching her true character fighting its way to the fore in opposition to the conventions of that time.
The setting in the Esterhazy Palace in the Hungarian countryside sounds both romantic and dark, and with strange magic afoot, gruesome murders and an escalating pervasion of fear amongst the guests, I was totally captivated and drawn into this decadent world of an opera come to life. I could feel it building until it reached its crescendo and my heart raced right along with it, curious to see how it would play out.
There were a few slower paced moments but not to the point where I lost interest and I wish I had known some more about the Castrato solely because I found him fascinating.
Overall, an engrossing, magical historical fantasy with a mix of murder, mystery, court politics and romance which reads like an opera. It was a dream to read not least because of the incredible writing and well drawn characters. Definitely one to add to your TBR!
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. Visit her online at www.stephanieburgis.com, at facebook.com/stephanieburgis, and Twitter @stephanieburgis.