Masks and Shadows – Stephanie Burgis
Release date: April 12th, 2016
Age Group: Adult
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review
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.
Can we first just take a moment to admire that gorgeous cover? It was the first thing that caught my eye about this book and it immediately made me want to read it. When I read the synopsis I only got more intrigued. Dark magic threatening the 18th century nobility and a strong focus on music and more specifically opera? I have to admit, I haven’t read anything like it before. Masks and Shadows is certainly an enjoyable read with a cast of interesting characters.
Charlotte von Steinbeck is recently widowed and has chosen to spend some time with her sister, Sophie, at the Esterhaza Palace of Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy. Sophie, who is actually married to an army officer has quickly become Prince Nicolaus’ official mistress. At the same time the famous castrato Signor Carlo Morelli visits the estate to experience Esterhaza’s well-known opera. What they both don’t know is that a dark plot is coming to fruition at Esterhaza to assassinate the Emperor and Empress.
I enjoyed reading both Charlotte’s and Carlo’s parts. Both have had their life planned out for them from when they were young, impacting their future so profoundly it’s hard for them to break free of it. Charlotte was married off to an elderly man, who she had to care for constantly because of his deteriorating health. Carlo is a castrato singer and though his singing is admired by every music lover on the continent, most still see him as a freak.
Charlotte’s sister, Sophie, irritated me to no end. She is the stereotypical girl that always gets what she wants and doesn’t think about anybody else but herself. I admired Charlotte’s mature response to all of Sophie’s melt-downs, but I sincerely wanted to smack her. The other secondary characters were a bit more intriguing and coloured the story with their different personalities and struggles. There’s Anna, Charlotte’s handmaiden whose beautiful voice gets discovered at Esterhaza, after which she promptly joins the opera company. Another young singer in the opera company, who has a grudge against the prince, takes on more than he can handle in his search for revenge. Sophie’s husband also plays an important role and I think I liked his evolution throughout the book the most.
The book reads a bit like an elaborate kind of cluedo, not with just a murderer to unmask, but with a whole conspiracy involving black magic. But this time the reader gets a glimpse of who is involved and how they got to that point.
The romance in ‘Masks and Shadows’ might have been one of the best I’ve read so far this year. The tension between the two, the doubt because of the situations they’re in, it all felt so natural and right. The big build-up came to an amazing climax during the masked ball held at Esterhaza. This was probably my favourite part of the book, a grand ball where everyone could behave more wildly, free from the burdens of their everyday life. While reading, I really wished I could have been there.
Masks and Shadows ends with a bang, bringing all the characters together for a nerve wracking finale. As is befitting for a book with a strong focus on opera, drama is never far away. I have a bit of difficulty really rating this book. On the one hand the overall plot isn’t anything new, but on the other hand the book is populated with interesting characters and their individual storylines made this still feel fresh. It is a fun book to read, not too long and with enough tension and mystery to keep you flipping the pages.