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.
I’ve been aware of Stephanie Burgis’ writing for years through the rave reviews I’ve read of her middle grade books, yet I’ve never actually read them. It did make me pay extra attention whenever her name popped up as the author of a story featured on the short fiction podcasts I listen to. And from what I’d heard I really liked Burgis’ writing. Reading the synopsis for her first fantasy novel for adults made me perk up immediately as it blends a lot of my favourite things: fantasy, history, mystery and conspiracy. And Masks and Shadows delivers on all of those things with the added bonus of a pinch of supernatural and a dash of romance thrown in.
I loved the atmosphere Burgis creates for the novel. Esterháza is a gorgeously evoked place, that breathes the opulence of the late eighteenth-century Western European courts laced with the naked ambition and cutthroat ways of its courtiers. However, she also shows the rotten soil on which the beauty was built, with her main character Carlo, himself of common birth, pondering the evils of the practice of serfdom and the mistreatment of those in their power by the rich and powerful and showing the unglamorous, hard life of the servants around Esterháza. There is a constant push and pull between revelling in ostentation and condemning its excesses. For example, Prince Esterházy has his own opera troupe and a house composer, Joseph Hayden, who are treated as valued commodities, and have to live by some very strict rules and are bound by very harsh contracts.
But the serfs and servants aren’t the only ones who are bound. Many of the main characters are constrained by society’s demands. There is the long-suffering, majestic Princess Esterházy forced to share a roof with her husband’s publicly acknowledged mistress, without any recourse for escape. There is the mistress, Sophie herself, stuck in a situation arguably of her own making, yet one she can’t really escape as her reputation is already lost beyond repair. There are Franz and Friedrich who made promises to the wrong people for the wrong reasons while not in their right mind. And most importantly, there are Carlo and Charlotte. The first becomes that mysterious entity, a castrato, admired, adored, and reviled all at once by those around him in a bid to create a better life for himself and his family. The latter recently widowed after having been married off to a man more than twice her age against her wishes and now running the risk of being married off once again to further her parents’ goals.
From the above enumeration you might deduce that there are a lot of characters to keep track of and you would be right. In fact, these aren’t even all of them—there are a LOT of characters. And while I really liked most of them and their separate story strands, some of them were hard to keep straight at times. That would be my main criticism of the book, the abundance of characters. They all play important roles and all of them have to be there to make the story work, but I found myself flipping back and forth a number of times to figure out who this person was again and how they fit into the plot. And the numerous story strands that Burgis weaves together to create the complex and compelling plot never truly become tangled, settling into the weft before becoming snarled.
The complex plot is one of court conspiracy, of secret societies, and of some less regular politicking. Burgis mixes the more mundane power plots in with grand schemes of conspiracy powered by alchemy and spiritualism, creating a heady brew that I really loved. In Von Born and Radamowsky she creates two alchemists of differing schools, one a natural philosopher, the other a spiritualist, but they both seem to only be hungry for power, not knowledge as they claim to be. I found their exploits rather frightening and especially the scenes in which Radamowsky held his seances gave me the creeps.
My favourite thing about the novel was the relationship between Charlotte and Carlo. They are both lonely souls confined by their station and society’s rules. Their mutual love of music is what attracts them initially in the other, but both are so painfully aware of the impropriety of the match, that it creates a star-crossed comedy of manners vibe to their courtship that was wonderful. And while the attraction and flirting and so on were delightful, what I really appreciated was the fact that the possibility of a relationship sparks a transformation in both of them. The most important development in their storyline isn’t their romance, but the realisation of their independence and a taking control of their agency.
All of this is presented in a fast-paced, exciting narrative filled with conspiracy and treachery. The denouement of the plot was fantastic and ended on a fabulous note and I really wish I was better versed in music theory to come up with a clever analogy here. Take it from me, there isn’t a discordant note in the story and I truly enjoyed Masks and Shadows tremendously. Stephanie Burgis’ adult debut is a wonderful entrance onto a new stage with a different audience and it deserves a standing ovation.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.