MASKS AND SHADOWS by STEPHANIE BURGIS
PB, 317 pages, Pyr.
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As regular readers to Making Things Up For a Living will know, I’m a great fan of Stephanie Burgis’s Regency-set MG trilogy (A Most Improper Magick (The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson) etc), so I was excited to get my hands on Masks and Shadows, which sees her first foray into adult novels. But I had a few moments of trepidation too…
The book revolves around not only the machinations and political intrigues in Eszterhaza, one of the grand palaces of the Hapsburg empire, which I know nothing about, but also opera, about which I know absolutely less than nothing. So I confess I was a little daunted and unsure. Powdered wigs and librettos? Was I going to enjoy this? Doesn’t really sound like my thing…
Of course, I should have known better. Stephanie Burgis has never let me down before, and this time, perhaps let off the leash from any strictures of MG writing, she has absolutely surpassed herself. Masks and Shadows is an unalloyed delight from cryptic opening to the final dramatic flourish.
The story follows two leads, renowned castrato singer Carlo Morelli, and the recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck. Morelli has travelled to Eszterhaza in the company of both a Prussian spy, and one of Europe’s most notorious alchemists, while Charlotte is recovering from her recent loss at the invitation of her (fairly awful) sister, Sophie, who is ensconced at the palace as the mistress of Prince Nikolaus. Thrown together by circumstances, this unlikely pair most unravel a plot that threatens to use magic to strike at the very heart of the Hapsburg Empire.
It’s fair to say the fantasy elements of the novel are relatively slight, and without them this would be a highly entertaining straight historical novel, with appearances and cameos from several real figures from history. The addition of strains of alchemy and black magic lifts it into the realms of SFF, and adds a level of richness to the novel, an extra layer of cream on an already-pretty-delicious torte, with quarrelling opera singers, a neglected wife, and a sinister underground organisation thrown into the mix as well.
It’s a splendid book, full of music and magic, forbidden and impossible loves and passionate rivalries, set against the backdrop of a Europe on the brink of dramatic change. Read it, even if it doesn’t sound like your thing. You won’t regret immersing yourself in Eszterhaza’s intricate world.