I’d been planning to wait to read this first adult novel from Stephanie Burgis until it came out in print… and then I found myself unable to resist the lure of the e-arc from Edelweiss. Thanks to Pyr for giving me access!
Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis. Pyr, 2016.
Coming out April 12, 2016!
It’s the late 1700s. Newly widowed Charlotte is feeling adrift when her younger sister invites her to stay with her at the remote palace of Eszterháza Palace. There Charlotte is shocked to find that her sister, rather than being happily married as she’d thought, is instead the very public mistress of the prince. Arriving at the castle at the same time are Carlo Morelli, the most famous castrato singer of the time, and a slew of other characters full of secrets and schemes (in the American sense.) Charlotte is an accomplished if necessarily amateur musician herself, so that even as she is dismayed by the events at court, she is delighted by the beautiful music there, with stunning new operas by composer-in-residence Franz Josef Haydn performed regularly. Carlo and Charlotte are drawn together by their mutual passion for music even as they must work to stop the dangerous things afoot. And while being a widow grants Charlotte some degree of romantic freedom, Carlo being a castrato still falls outside the bounds of socially acceptable…
There are so many elements that I love that come together in this book! I love a good historical fantasy. I’ve made whole lists of fantasy where music plays a key role (though the music isn’t part of the magic here, alas), and adding in a strong romantic element is an extra delight. Unlike a traditional romance, where the story is usually told split between the points of view of the two leads, this story, in keeping with the loads of twisty plotting, is told from the points of view of lots of characters. I didn’t really connect with all of them, but I don’t think we were really meant to – I was quite fond of Charlotte’s maid with the beautiful singing voice, Anna. I also very much enjoyed the look into the music-making of the time, a few centuries later than my personal area of musical expertise.
I was happily engrossed in the story and telling everyone about it, when just as the action was building up to its peak at the very end, my aged ereader started taking half a minute for each page turn. This, alas, took me rather effectively out of the story and started me thinking thoughts about authenticity in worldviews in historical fiction. To wit: in modern Western thinking, individual happiness is prized over collective happiness. In other parts of the world today, and in the culture in which this book was set, the reverse is true. So here and nearly every historical romantic story, the leads must choose between doing what makes them happy and bringing honor to their families – a very new idea for Charlotte, here. Suddenly I found myself wondering if there could be a way for Charlotte in particular to be happy within what would have been her norms, even as I knew that I, as a modern woman, would have been deeply disappointed if she did choose to follow her mother’s wishes rather than her own heart… I don’t have a good answer to this, except for feeling that it would be unfair for me to expect that level of authenticity and personal satisfaction from a modern romance or fantasy book.
On a more positive note, we are just now as a society starting to think and talk more about non-binary genders. Masks and Shadows is an interesting look at the relationship controversies of several centuries ago, looking beyond the gay or lesbian romances that I still see only very occasionally in historical fantasy (though admittedly, these kinds of romances are even rarer in my usual middle grade fiction.) The romance here is non-explicit enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to teens as well as adults, especially those fond of music and political intrigue.
This would pair well Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies, though that is straight historical fiction and aimed at teens.