Review: Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Genre: Fantasy, Historical

Publisher: Pyr on April 5, 2016

Source: Publisher

Rating StarRating StarRating StarRating Star

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace.

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If you’re a fan of historical fantasy, swoon-worthy romances, or classical music, then Stephanie Burgis’ standalone novel MASKS AND SHADOWS is a must-read.

The court of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy of Hungary, is a secluded yet opulent palace where the Prince lives with his wife…and his exuberant young mistress, Sophie. When Sophie invites her elder sister, the straight-laced widow Charlotte Von Steinbeck to Esterháza for the season, Charlotte has no idea of the political machinations, dark magic, and her own forbidden passions that await her discovery in the secluded court.

Meanwhile, the most famous castrati singer in Europe, Carlo Morelli, is growing tired of performing for gauche aristocrats in the hopes of advancing his status. Simultaneously viewed as a freak and as an object of desire for his otherness, Carlo has few friends and rarely lets down his guard. He is a man who has been granted the favour of royalty – surely he won’t be swept away by the quiet, buttoned up widow Baroness Von Steinbeck. But when Charlotte’s reserved exterior gives way to her passion for music, Carlo finds excuses to remain at Esterháza…endangering more than his heart in the process. The romance between Carlo and Charlotte was absolutely adorable! I love a good forbidden romance, and this one has one of the most unique conceits I’ve read about in quite some time. This is the perfect slow burn romance, and I highly recommend it to my fellow fantasy romance lovers out there!

With an atmospheric 18th century setting that draws heavily on music – particularly the composition and performance of opera – to create a lush background, MASKS AND SHADOWS is easily one of the most well researched historical fantasies I’ve read in years. Stephanie Burgis masterfully incorporates historical events and figures into the story, most notably the composer Joseph Haydn (love him) without making it feel as though she’s merely “name-dropping.” After reading her bio, I’m not surprised: Burgis has studied late-eighteenth-century opera and politics in Vienna and Esterháza at the doctoral level. Her passion for music and the time period absolutely shines through, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the overall effect.

The characters are also beautifully realized in MASKS AND SHADOWS, particularly the Charlotte and Carlo – and Charlotte’s maid turned opera star, Anna. There are five POV characters in the novel and each one has a distinct voice; combined with their unique positions within the court at Esterháza, this kept me frantically turning the pages to find out what was happening behind closed doors even when the plot was moving at a leisurely pace. This is a story about music, magic and love…and what happens when they go wrong, which means that there’s a ton of emotional drama to be found. I live for these kinds of stories!

Where I felt MASKS AND SHADOWS stumbled a bit was with the fantastical elements of the story, which were so understated that they ended up feeling underdeveloped. Dark alchemical magic, wielded by a creepy secret brotherhood (of course), was the extent of what we saw, but I was hoping for more. Even though Charlotte is the protagonist, she’s only impacted by magic a handful of times. Here’s hoping that this magic is further developed in CONGRESS OF SECRETS, Burgis’ recently released companion novel to MASKS AND SHADOWS. It’s high up on my TBR, so hopefully you’ll be seeing my thoughts on that one soon!

What do you think of historical fantasy novels? Have you read MASKS AND SHADOWS? Let me know in the comments!

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  • I agree, this was so much fun! I have Burgis’ second book in a pile to read, and reading your review has reminded me that I need to hop to it. I also agree with you that the fantastical part of the story didn’t work that well. I almost would have preferred it to be straight forward historical, because it seems she just threw it in so her story could be filed under fantasy. But still, so good!

    • I absolutely cannot wait to read Congress of Secrets! I think it’s my most anticipated read of December. Hopefully we’ll both have the chance to read t soon!

      Same, I think the magical elements were pretty marginal. We’ll see how the second book deals with the fantastical!

  • I have seen this one around and yes I am intrigued 😀

    • Yay! I’m glad to hear it. I definitely recommend it if you get the chance to pick it up!

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    I can tell you there is more magic in Congress of Secrets, and it’s a darker, far more eerie kind of magic than the one you can find in Masks and Shadows, although it never takes center stage.
    My impression is that the author does not want her stories to revolve on magic, and prefers to concentrate on characters, and she manages that quite well, mixing real historical figures with fictional ones in a seamless way.
    I look forward to your comments on book 2! 🙂

    • Eeeee yay! I’m so excited to hear that. Burgis could seriously be one of my new favourite authors based on how much I loved this one.

      I think you’ve got the right of it, Maddalena! Burgis definitely seems more into the historical elements than the fantastical. But that’s okay with me! 🙂

  • Lynn Williams

    I will echo Maddalena’s comments below about the dark magic. The theme continues in the second book and is better developed – although, again, but under used. Even so though Congress of Secrets is an excellent read and my favourite of the two.
    Lynn 😀

    • I’m so happy to hear that you preferred Congress of Secrets — based on that, I suspect it may be one of my favourite reads of 2016 since I loved Masks and Shadows so much.

      Historical fantasy has really been doing it for me, lately!

  • I’d not heard of this book before! To be honest, I absolutely love the cover, and that alone would enough to draw me in. I also love historical fiction, eighteenth century included. That’s great that you really enjoyed the characters and setting!

    Wonderful review, Danya. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • HA! I’m exactly the same way, a beautiful cover will suck me in every time, especially if there are lots of pretty colours. YAY! Historical fiction for the win! You know, I think you’d really like this one Alyssa — in a lot of ways it’s similar to a historical romance novel. 🙂

  • I haven’t heard about this book
    before. I mostly read contemporary, but I pick up Historical Fiction from time
    to time. The romance in this book sounds unique and interesting. I appreciate
    when the author does his research well. I usually check out books with multiple
    POV, so I’m curious how the author managed to write them in this book. Great
    review, Danya!

    • It’s totally underhyped, in my opinion, which is a shame because Masks and Shadows is such a good book! Same, I really appreciate good research in historical fiction and Stephanie Burgis knocks it out of the park in this book.

      Thanks Ksenia! 🙂

  • I’ve literally never heard of this book and after your review I;m beginning to question why not? It sounds fab. I love history (especially when it sounds like a lot of knowledge went into both the historical setting and integrating the real and imagined characters which feature in the story) and I love romance and even if the fantasy elements are a bit underdeveloped who cares? Sounds liek this has ticked the other boxes for me. I’m going to sit and stare at the buy page for this now and try and talk myself out of buying it whilst simultaneously trying to talk myself into it.

    • I had the same reaction! I’d heard of the book from a couple bloggers, but then I didn’t hear anything else about it and totally forgot that it existed…which is a shame because let’s be honest: this is total Danya-bait. Great characters, slow burn romance, historical fantasy, AND classical music? HELL YES.

      HAHAHA well not to be a bad influence on you, but I sincerely hope you clicked “buy” because we need to chat about this author! I think you’d really like Stephanie Burgis’ writing.

      • Okay, I haven’t bought it yet because it’s expensive everywhere I look, but as soon as I find it at a reasonable price I am investing and then we can have a lengthy discussion on my thoughts. I’m annoyed I decided to ask for no books for Christmas now. This would have been perfect.

  • Wow, five POV characters is a lot! I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before — most of the historical fantasies I’ve read have been set in war-times. I’ll have to give this a try!

    • I know, right? Lots of historical fantasy is either military fantasy or fantasy of manners, and based on your reading preferences I can’t say I’m surprised that you enjoy the former. 😉

      I do think you’d enjoy the latter too though, especially since lots of them have great duels!

  • That first line of your review? SOLD!
    *goes back to read the rest*

    Seriously this sounds amazing, Danya. I love the sound of everything about this book. Especially the fact that it’s a well-researched historical. It’s interesting because I was never that into history, but I love anything historical fiction. It’s a bummer about the fantasy elements being a bit underdeveloped, but I am pleased that it didn’t take away from your enjoyment. And normally the sound of all those characters would scare me away, but whatever, everything just sounds so lush. I will most definitely be picking this one up.

    Lovely review, Danya (though darn you for always adding to my TBR!)

    • Right?! That line alone would’ve convinced me (although clearly I’m horribly biased…haha).

      See, I have the opposite situation: it’s strange that I like historical fiction because I was a history major in undergrad and you’d think that would kill my appreciation for the genre given that sometimes there are a ton of historical inaccuracies. But it hasn’t at all!

      YES, lush is the absolute perfect word to describe this book! I can’t wait to see what you think of it, Nick. HA! Pot, meet kettle. You’ve certainly added quite a bit to my TBR as well! 😉

  • Oh that cover is SO BEAUTIFUL.!! And the fact that the writing is beautiful and it’s well researched is just really piquing my interest, that’s for sure! *flails* I don’t usually run after historical fiction, but I can be convinced if there’s magic.???? I’m glad this was a winning read for you!

    • Isn’t it though??? The cover for the companion novel is also really pretty. I’m the same: straight-up historical fiction isn’t my thing but toss in some magic and some luuuurve and I’m all about it!

  • This cover! And I am so intrigued by how the setting relies on music — it sounds wonderful, and that the author hit all the right — pardon me — notes with that aspect of the book.

    • I know, it’s sooo gorgeous! HA! I had to restrain myself from making too many music-related puns, so I’m glad someone else felt the urge.

  • Well! This just got onto my tbr with lightning speed. It sounds amazing, Danya!

    I like historical fantasy if it’s done well and not too full of detail. And it helps if I’m at least passably acquainted with the period because I like the “aha, I know this” moments. 🙂

    I don’t know much about classical music from a musician’s point of view, but I enjoy listening to it. I can’t say I’ve listened to a lot of Haydn, though, so I’ll have to change that. Thanks for the review! 🙂

    • It’s sooo good! I’m really pleased the publisher sent me this book, because I don’t know if I would’ve made time for Burgis’ work otherwise and I would’ve been missing out.

      This one’s pretty detailed, but since it’s about a period and set in a place that isn’t a popular setting for historical, I think the detail adds to the story rather than bogging it down. Haha, yes, I had a few “aha!” moments whilst reading and I got quite giddy!

      Ooooh! I hope you’ll listen to Haydn and pick up the book. Let me know what you think of them if you do. ????