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Masks and Shadows

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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.

317 pages, Paperback

First published April 5, 2016

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About the author

Stephanie Burgis

69 books973 followers
I grew up in America, but now I live in Wales with my husband, fellow writer Patrick Samphire, our two sons, and our sweet (and extremely vocal) tabby cat, Pebbles. I write fun MG fantasy adventure novels (most recently The Raven Heir) and wildly romantic adult historical fantasy novels and novellas (most recently Scales and Sensibility).

To get early sneak peeks at new stories and novels, sign up for my newsletter here: stephanieburgis.com/newsletter.

To join my Dragons' Book Club and get early copies of every ebook that I put out myself (so, all of my novellas, short story ebooks, etc!), check out my Patreon page, where I also published a series of fantasy rom-coms (Good Neighbors) across 2020-2021.

I only rate and review the books that I like, which is why all of my ratings are 4 or 5 stars.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 151 reviews
Profile Image for Felicia.
Author 47 books128k followers
December 20, 2016
I really liked this book. It's a fun historical fiction novel that has some interesting magical elements infused into the political intrigue. I'm a sucker for musicians and opera, and this book features a fantastic female protagonist who moves in the world of Hapsburg palaces and nobles. There were a lot of really fun historical details that drew me in the world. There's romance, but it's not a romance book persay. If the unique setting attracts you, give it a look!
Profile Image for ᴥ Irena ᴥ.
1,649 reviews213 followers
December 16, 2015
This was one of those lucky 'I'll just read a couple of pages to see' that ends up as something really good.

What does this book have to recommend it? Apart from its interesting setting, both place and time, it has great characters, writing and story.
None of the characters can fully claim the title 'main' though. It works well in this case.
There is mystery, a plot against the emperor and empress and a dash of magic. And one mustn't forget a horror element. The thing is, nothing in this novel is overdone nor does it overwhelm other layers of the story. There are three acts, each with its short scenes featuring different characters. It's a very fast read because of it.

Most of the characters are well written. What I liked is that not all of the annoying ones suddenly have a change of heart when it comes to their attitudes (some really are obnoxious and stay like that till the end). Some, though, find courage even when everything is turned against them.
And some even become heroes. You'd be surprised how unlikely heroes rise in this story.

There is a very slow burning romance between the two if not main, but certainly most likeable characters. It is not intrusive; it is a bit behind the scenes, various plots and people playing their roles, but it is always present. The romance between Charlotte and Carlo is wonderfully written.

ARC downloaded from Edelweiss, courtesy of Prometheus Books/Pyr
Profile Image for Zen Cho.
Author 54 books2,362 followers
June 24, 2016
I thoroughly enjoyed this swooningly romantic historical fantasy, operatic both in subject matter and style. I was impressed by the pace, the skillful handling of plot and the management of a large cast of characters -- while many of them are recognisable tropes they are also all people. The book's also very funny!
Profile Image for Sherwood Smith.
Author 168 books37.5k followers
January 17, 2016
Copy provided by the publisher.

Stephanie Burgis, well-loved as an author for YA and middle-grade fantasy, hits the ground running with her first adult fantasy in this fast-moving, sometimes wistful and romantic, sometimes sinister opera of a novel, Masks and Shadows, which should appeal to readers who enjoy palace intrigue with a dash of fantastical horrorific elements.

Charlotte, a young widowed baroness, travels to the new Esterhazy estate built by the extravagant Prince Nicolaus, where Haydn works as Kapellmeister. Obedient, good-hearted and sheltered, she meets her first castrato in Carlo Morelli, famous throughout Europe. At first she is aghast, but after playing accompaniment to his singing, she undergoes a significant change of heart. Charlotte's sister is the current mistress to the prince, thus Charlotte's invitation among an exclusive company that is made up of titled people, many of whom have ulterior motives of various kinds.

Charlotte's maid Anna is a natural-born singer, and when discovered by the delighted Haydn, we are also introduced to the musicians and actors and singers as Haydn prepares a new opera for staging. (Anna's training as a singer is my favorite bit in the story; talented as she is, she doesn't get to waltz in and take over to universal acclaim. In fact, her whole arc was my favorite of the many threads.)

Near the end, Empress Maria Theresa in company with her son Joseph (with whom she co-ruled the last ten years of her life) arrives for a surprise visit. . . in time for a sinister plot to reach fruition. Danger and dastardly deeds abound.

The novel is set in 1779, and features a number of once-living people, but (like an opera) finesses a few actual details in order to build a better story. Also like an opera, it's plotted with dramatic motivations and plenty of sneaking around between scenes of high life, leading to a horrific climax that would be terrific to stage.

The musical theme that runs through it enhances the operatic effect--at some points I was hearing Don Giovanni in the back of my mind. (Most appropriately! Burgis lets them be pen friends a few years before they actually met.)

Lavish descriptions of the famous palace, plenty of characters high and low, and a running thread of intrigue and evil plotting make a thoroughly fun romp of a book.
Profile Image for Beth.
1,144 reviews114 followers
May 8, 2016
Too many point of view characters, all of whom were passive.

And apparently I'm not a fan of blended genres: I think I'd have enjoyed this a little more, passivity and all, if the conspiracies were straight politics. Instead, there were too many characters all ultimately manipulated by specters and hypnosis. And they all led such miserable lives, too.
Profile Image for E.M. Tippetts.
Author 25 books505 followers
January 4, 2016
I love Stephanie Burgis's writing! She's been a favorite of mine for a long, long time. Masks and Shadows doesn't disappoint. My only complaint was that I ended up confined to a chair for most of today reading through the last chapters. There was no way I could put it down.

Set in Hungary during the reign of the Hapsburgs, what begins as a social visit of a widowed older sister to her married/mistress younger sister soon begins to turn sinister. Two bodies are found drained of blood and two alchemists, who are mortal enemies, take up residence in the Prince's court.

Add to that the backdrop of the Esterhazy Palace (aka the Hungarian Versailles) and its world famous opera house with Joseph Hadyn in residence. Burgis was, before she was a writer, a professional musician who clearly knows this bit of history well.

Told from the point of view of a pretty large cast of characters, I never had any trouble following who was doing what, even when I wanted very much for them to *stop* doing some of the terrifying things they were doing. I suspect this is also a bit of hidden history, as it wouldn't surprise me in the least if some of the major events in the storyline did happen in real life.

Definitely read this one when it comes out!
Profile Image for Para (wanderer).
360 reviews194 followers
March 11, 2021
I knew I have to read this immediately as soon as I saw the blurb. Historical fantasy set in 1779 Habsburg empire, featuring alchemy, a castrato, a widow, and a Prussian spy? At a time where I’m explicitly interested in the 18th century? (My current focuses might be France and Prussia, but I’ll take what I can get.) Yes. Yes please.

And this time, I was not disappointed. It was so much my catnip.

The plot mostly revolves around Charlotte, a widowed noblewoman who came to Esterháza to visit her sister (the mistress of the prince), Carlo, a castrato singer who’s visiting as a guest, and a bunch of creepy alchemists who are clearly up to something sinister.

What I loved the most about it was that clearly, a lot of love and research went into it. Crossdressing at a masquerade ball? Perfectly historically accurate, and my favourite detail. There’s even a note in the end on what characters and major events was accurate and where it diverged from history for the sake of the story. Music is also very important (the author studied music history and did her PhD in Vienna!) and we even get Haydn as a side character.

The romance between Charlotte and Carlo was also something I enjoyed, not exactly traditional as far as romances go. I also found it interesting that not everyone’s ending was happy. Some side characters died, some antagonists escaped consequences. Uncommon for books with a romance subplot this prominent.

The only complaint I have is that the book could really do with a tighter focus. There are a lot of POVs, especially for such a short book. The Prussian spy I was looking forward to was, in the end, a completely pointless character that could have been removed without affecting the plot in any way whatsoever, and there’s not just one, but two unwilling alchemist accomplices that kind of blended together in my mind.

Regardless, I found it to be a very fast, engaging read. The short story epilogue, Shadow Duet, telling us what happened to Charlotte and Carlo after the ending of Masks and Shadows, is also well worth checking out.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 3.5/5

Recommended to: fans of historical fantasy who are sick of England as a setting, music nerds
Not recommended to: those who prefer books with a tighter focus

More reviews on my blog, To Other Worlds.
Profile Image for Laura Florand.
Author 31 books897 followers
September 24, 2015
This was quite fascinating! It's got darker and more intense tones than the Kat books, but still with Stephanie's deft blend of history and fantasy. And I loved the romance between Charlotte and Carlo. Loved the humanness and naturalness to the way that developed as they learned to see past their initial expectations. Although their romance is very central in the development of the story, it's historical fantasy rather than romance per se, and other characters have major roles as well. These characters are very well drawn, their stories weaving together as the suspense builds.

Honestly, I'm hoping for more stories about these two or perhaps one of the secondary characters. A great new direction for Stephanie Burgis! I stayed up late reading it because I didn't want to put it down!
Profile Image for Danya.
485 reviews22 followers
February 7, 2017
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!

Profile Image for Rachel Neumeier.
Author 46 books484 followers
January 4, 2016
This story is set in the late 1700s, in the Habsburg Empire – not a setting I’m particularly familiar with. The only historical character whom I recognized was Joseph Haydn and I can’t claim to know much about him, either. I see via Wikipedia that he really was employed by the Esterházy family for a good part of his career. I expect plenty of historically aware readers would probably know a good deal more than I do about many of the other secondary characters, like the Emperor and Empress of the Habsburg Empire.

The story itself, it turns out, is not just about opera, it actually is an opera. It is filled with passion and drama, evil plots and heroic rescues, spurned wives and pouting mistresses, demon-summoning alchemists, ambitious noblemen, and the most famous castrato singer in Europe. Point-of-view characters are abundant, scenes are short, and the whole story weaves together just like a fast-paced stage production. You can practically hear the operatic score as each character steps onstage and each scene progresses.

Of course, an opera is not really the same thing as a novel, and this story, which works so well if you think of it as an opera, is not quite what I was expecting. It weaves everything together so cleverly, but it doesn’t ever focus on any particular character or their relationships — this is not a failing, because that’s not what the story is trying to do. But it was a little bit of a surprise for me.

In MASKS AND SHADOWS, we have quite a large cast, including Charlotte von Steinbeck, recently widowed and now visiting her sister in Eszterháza; and Friedrich von Hollner, the sister’s husband; and Charlotte’s maid Anna; and Carlo Morelli, the castrato singer; and Franz, a tenor. And then a whole bunch of important secondary characters.

My favorite pov character was Anna, who starts out as Charlotte’s maid and is unexpectedly recruited as a soprano, though she doesn’t know anything about opera or acting, can’t read music, and doesn’t even speak Italian. What a situation! Innocent, even sheltered, but brave, Anna drives the plot at least as much as any character mentioned in the back cover copy. I would have liked a novel at least twice as long as this one, mainly focused on her.

My favorite secondary character was Princess Esterházy, set aside by her husband in favor of a pretty, shallow, selfish twit of a girl. The Princess, with her clever, clear-sighted bitterness and her startling companions, would also have made a great main character in her own novel.

Given the actual structure of the story, however, there wasn’t much room to develop Anna, or the Princess, or anyone else. Some room, yes, and a couple of the pov characters take unexpected roles as the crisis unfolds, but this was really not the kind of novel that focuses on deep character development. If you’re into opera, though, chances are good you’d enjoy seeing how Burgis does in words what an ordinary opera does on stage — especially if you’re familiar with the historical period.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 4 books52 followers
August 19, 2016
Intrigue, music, romance, and alchemy, all converging in one of 18th century Hungary's grandest opera houses - that's the premise for Masks and Shadows, the debut adult historical fantasy by Stephanie Burgis. Set in Eszterháza Palace, the home of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, this standalone follows the recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck and the renowned castrato singer Carlo Morelli. Both are visiting Eszterháza under different circumstances, and meet as composer Joseph Haydn is about to premiere a new opera. As more guests arrive and Charlotte and Carlo spend time at the palace, they realize that secrets are lurking within its walls - secrets of dark magic, blackmail, and murder. And if they can't find out who may be behind it all, the Habsburg Empire's royal family might not be the only lives at stake.

I love it when music plays a major role in stories. Masks and Shadows is no exception, and there's plenty to enjoy beyond music. Burgis's lush descriptions of Eszterháza's opera house, gardens, and other areas paint a vivid picture of a truly extravagant setting. An undercurrent of romance flows throughout, especially between Charlotte and Carlo. Their differences in social class and Carlo being a castrato puts their relationship squarely in "forbidden" territory, and I found it compelling yet was pleased it didn't upstage the rest of the plot. My favorite POV character, though, was Anna, Charlotte's former maid and an untrained yet talented singer. She's sympathetic and admirable, thanks to her frustration as she hurries to prepare for her first opera (and as the palace conspiracy grows more evident) and her bravery during the explosive, based-on-history climax.

That said, it took me a while to get into Masks and Shadows. Some of this was due to the old-fashioned language and dialogue. Most of it, however, was because of certain characters. I couldn't stand Charlotte's selfish, hypocritical younger sister Sophie and struggled with the mostly aristocratic cast. I like reading about kings, queens, and so on, but I get bored when there aren't enough everyday people to balance it out. But the final third of the story made up for some of those issues - and that stunning finale. WOW. Masks and Shadows is an opera in itself: dramatic, sweeping, and full of passion in all its forms. Fans of music, European history, and magic should consider adding this to their wishlist.
Profile Image for Y.S. Lee.
Author 13 books951 followers
August 29, 2016
This is a bold historical fantasy set in Hungary, 1779, at the height of the Habsburg monarchy. Featuring opera, alchemy, political intrigue and “the most famous castrato in Europe” as its romantic hero, it’s an astonishing, richly detailed novel. As both musician and music historian, Burgis writes about the power of music with unusual freshness and subtlety. She also has a keen eye for social and cultural detail. And, as fans of her middle-grade Kat, Incorrigible trilogy might expect, there’s a difficult and compelling sibling relationship at the heart of the story. Masks and Shadows stayed with me long after I finished it and I’m so eager to read its companion novel, Congress of Secrets.
Profile Image for Kristen.
324 reviews261 followers
May 26, 2016
Masks and Shadows is an enjoyable historical fantasy novel with a grand conspiracy, music, and romance set almost entirely within Eszterháza Palace in Hungary in 1779. I loved the oft-overlooked setting and Charlotte's personal journey and found it to be an incredibly readable, absorbing story. Since it had a LOT of characters, it didn't have as much in-depth character development as I would have liked, but I did think it was definitely worth reading!

3 1/2 stars - a solid, enjoyable book that I liked

Full Review: http://www.fantasybookcafe.com/2016/0...
Profile Image for Alexa.
2,149 reviews11.3k followers
March 31, 2016
I'd probably accurately rate this one somewhere between 3.25-3.5 stars. I found the story pretty interesting, if fairly straightforward and lacking just a touch more development when it came to character relationships. The characters themselves were okay; not remarkable, but not bland either.
Profile Image for Patrick Samphire.
Author 31 books161 followers
December 6, 2019
The year is 1779, the place is the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary. The famous castrato singer Carlo Morelli is travelling to the palace as a guest of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, but he is not the only one. He's accompanied by a famous alchemist, Ignaz Von Born, and a man he suspects to be a spy. Already arrived at the palace is the recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck visiting her younger sister, Sophie.

But there are plots brewing at the palace. The Habsburg Emperor and Empress are about to visit, and there are forces at work who will stop at nothing to assassinate them. There is blackmail, alchemy, and betrayal, and not everyone is who they seem to be.

Masks and Shadows is a historical fantasy set in an unusual location with characters who are quite unique. If you've read Stephanie Burgis's previous middle grade books, you'll know she has a knack for convincing, lively, three dimensional characters with complex motivations, and in this, her first adult novel, she has been able to create some of the most interesting characters you're likely to read in a fantasy novel, from the castrato singer, Carlo Morelli, playing a role he no longer believes in to Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper young widow who is forced to confront the scandalous fact that her younger sister, Sophie, is the very public mistress of Prince Esterházy. Then there are the members of the prince's opera company who are unwillingly caught up in the plots and Sophie's husband, a member of the prince's guard, unsuccessfully trying not to regret the deal he made that allows his own wife to be the prince's mistress.

Add to those the real historical characters in the book: Prince Esterházy and his wife, the princess forced to live in the palace alongside the prince's mistress, the composer Joseph Haydn, and a host of others and you have a setting that is rich and highly believable.

This is an enormously well-researched book, full of colour and atmosphere, but it's not one of those books where the author feels the need to pile all the research on you. The story is fast-moving, touching, tense and enormously involving. You will genuinely believe you are in the Esterháza Palace along with these wonderful and conflicted characters, and the story won't let you go until you reach the desperate finale.

This book draws heavily on opera and the opera company contracted to Prince Esterházy. I am not a fan of opera (to say the least) and know pretty much nothing about eighteenth century Hungary but everything about the story thread of the company trying to put on a performance of Haydn's new opera for the visiting royals while being unwittingly caught up in the various plots and under threat of disapproval from the unforgiving prince caught me up and enthralled me.

Masks and Shadows is the kind of book that utterly absorbs you and drags you through the conflicting emotions and dilemmas of its rich cast of characters.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy, historical fiction or romance.

A brilliant and unusual book.
Profile Image for Tressa (Wishful Endings).
1,724 reviews185 followers
March 26, 2017
MASKS AND SHADOWS is a darkly romantic tale set in historical Austria. The author did a marvelous job in her characterizations, descriptions, and overall plot. Adult historical romance readers who enjoy Gothics or historical romance with a slightly dark edge will enjoy this one.

I couldn't help getting pulled in to this story. The author's writing was so well done that I could envision the rich scene with its opulent rooms, the craziness of the concert master and his singers, the dark and dangerous monster, the formal aristocracy with all their flirting and secrets, the gossiping, the soldiers in their uniforms and at the pub... I could go on and on. I felt so completely immersed in this rich world.

Then there were the characters. I loved Charlotte. She was a wonderful heroine with her steady mind, intelligence, and humility. She also was quite human with her faults. I wanted her to slap her sister sometimes and get a backbone, but I also understood why that would be hard for her. I loved Carlo. What a difficult situation. I have to be honest and say that I hadn't really though about the circumstances of a castrato singer. It's rather terrible. He was an unusual hero, but such a good fit for this story and for Charlotte. My heart broke over these two.

Then there are the villains. I detested Charlotte's sister. She is so hypocritical and I hated how she abused Charlotte and her husband. Prince Nikolaus was superbly pompous and selfish. He was also very naive. There are others who also stood out who added a lot to this story.

The plot overall was steady and intriguing. Parts of it were difficult because it was so heartbreaking, others because the content was disturbing. It's mysterious from the start and the tension grows more and more as the story develops. In the end it was very, very intense. I was literally hanging on to my seat and cheering the characters on at the same time. It was a relief in the end. I was proud of these two main characters and the ending they made for themselves.

In the end, was it what I wished for? This was a very rich, heartbreaking, intense, but also beautiful and sweet story. Personally, I would have liked it cleaner, but it was very well done.

Content: Innuendo, violence, some crass moments, adult subject matter, descriptive scenes.
Source: I received a complimentary ARC from the publisher, which did not affect my review in any way.

This review originally appeared on .
Profile Image for Mary Catelli.
Author 52 books171 followers
August 11, 2016
An alternate history featuring Haydn and Prince Esterházy, and also a secret society that dabbles in alchemy and worse -- which works.

The main characters are Charlotte, a widow taking refuge with her sister -- the prince's mistress -- and Carlo, a castrato singer and only nominal guest.

It involves the Princess having Charlotte call on her, two runaway lovers, a new opera, a surprising visit, the sweet voice of Charlotte's maid, a foolish lieutenant who made promises while drunk, and more. Somewhat uneven in development.
Profile Image for Mogsy (MMOGC).
2,030 reviews2,604 followers
April 11, 2016
4 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum https://bibliosanctum.com/2016/04/11/...

This spring, Masks and Shadows rocketed its way up to my most highly anticipated list. With its themes of palace intrigue, passionate romance, secret conspiracies and dark magic, the book sounded right up my alley and I am pleased to say that Stephanie Burgis’ first adult historical fantasy did not disappoint.

The story takes place in 1779, transporting readers to the extravagant court of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy of Hungary. Charlotte is a widowed young baroness, invited to stay at the palace during her mourning period by her sister Sophie, the prince’s mistress. The entire place is also abuzz with the arrival of Europe’s foremost castrato singer Carlo Morelli, here to enjoy the operas and grand musical productions that have made the Eszterháza so famous. Other visitors and guests that have come from afar include a Prussian spy and a notorious alchemist, setting the stage for the main event.

However, tragedy strikes as the prince’s opera troupe loses two of its most important performers. Franz Pichler, another actor, is punished in connection to his colleagues’ disappearance, while Anna, a young maid in Charlotte’s employ is suddenly vaulted to stardom when she is chosen to replace one of the missing singers. A sinister plot is hatching in the hands of a shadowy group at the palace, and as both Charlotte and Carlo are drawn into their mysterious web, the two of them are in turn drawn to each other even though they know deep down that a future together is forbidden. Still, if the threat to the royal family is not stopped, there might not even be a future for anyone at the Eszterháza.

Even though Masks and Shadows features a large cast of characters, it was surprisingly easy to follow along with the story. In fact, the book was a very fast read, thanks to its great plot and smooth pacing. And despite being a historical fiction novel, never once did I feel that the narrative was bogged down by extraneous historical detail. The story’s main focus was on the characters and their relationships, which worked really well for me.

Two of the more prominent players were Charlotte and Carlo, whose interactions provide the basis for the main romantic arc in this novel. Their romance is a deliciously slow-burning one that doesn’t feel like it overshadows the rest of the story, which I found really refreshing. The two of them are also unconventional protagonists, one being a noble woman who has just lost her husband and the other being a common born castrato singer. Despite his incredible talent and fame, few people at court see Carlo past the fact he is a castrated man and his lower status as a performer. Meanwhile, Charlotte is prevented from following her heart by her selfish flake of a little sister, to whom she still feels loyal even though the younger woman treats her like crap. I despised Sophie, and wished that Charlotte had shown more backbone in the face of her sister’s disparaging, but this also underscored how Charlotte’s personality was shaped and why her actions later on in the book are so significant.

Like I said, the romance is just one thread in a story which also features a mystery plot as well as a coming-of-age tale. The speculative element comes in the form of an alchemist’s dark magic and ability to summon entities from another realm, and gradually it is revealed how this plays into the larger picture. Anna the 16-year-old former-maid-turned-opera-singer also has a strong presence throughout the novel, making me think Masks and Shadows might be as much about her as it is about Charlotte. I was impressed at how flawlessly everything came together and resolved the story without leaving any loose ends.

You also don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy the story; I knew next to nothing about this period or the historical figures, but I had a great time with the book all the same. And actually, it was fascinating to learn more about the setting afterwards to find out how much of real history Burgis had incorporated into her story, like how 1779 was indeed a watershed year for famous composer Joseph Haydn, whose principle patron at the time was Nicolaus I, or the fact that the Eszterháza main opera house did burn down that very same year (though the book has a much more interesting explanation for that fire!) There must have been a lot of research devoted to this novel.

On the whole, I was really pleased by the balance. It feels like there’s something for everyone in this enchanting novel, whether you’re a fantasy reader, an enthusiast of European history, or even a music lover. Masks and Shadows is a captivating read with genuine wide appeal, which I’m sure will garner Stephanie Burgis many new fans.
Profile Image for Ashley.
199 reviews149 followers
May 13, 2018
I am quite possibly the world's largest fan of The Phantom of the Opera, so when I received Masks and Shadows a couple years ago from PYR for review, I was ecstatic. A novel set in a true historical setting, revolving around an opera singer and a Baroness who must shuck the constraints of "proper" society off to be happy–oh, and there's a darker undertone of evil alchemists who are threatening the safety of everyone in the palace. What's not to love?

Now that I've finished reading Masks and Shadows, I admit that I'm not quite as satisfied as I'd hoped I would be. The idea for this novel never came together in the way it could have. I'll break down my thoughts my section:

The Plot

Masks and Shadows really had so much potential to be a seat-gripping historical fantasy. Instead, it felt pulled in too many directions to find its rhythm. The beginning is slow going, with lots of the "historical" scenes of court life and meaningless chatter with royals, etc... And while the tone of intrigue is set early in the novel with vague snippets of a mysterious "Brotherhood" being shown through several points of view, I never felt the urgency in the plot that should have accompanied the revelation of a secret Brotherhood looking to unseat the monarchy.

Perhaps the reason for that lack of urgency was the constant POV change. We get to see into the minds of multiple characters in the novel: the main heroine Charlotte, the main hero Carlo, Charlotte's maid-turned-actress Anna, an actor named Franz, a soldier named Friedrich, a spy, etc... After several switches within the same chapter, the narrative loses the sense of tight coherency, and becomes the reader working to keep the strings of story tethered together.

The Characters

I really would've loved more romance. Also as a result of the constant POV change, I felt the two MCs didn't receive the in depth treatment they could have. I really did like their romance, and an exploration of those feelings together was what I was missing to really immerse myself into it.

In terms of the villains, I love the idea of an evil alchemist society that wants to usurp the government, but it felt very small scale. The villainy honestly left me a little disappointed.

I feel as though I've highlighted too many of the things that didn't work for me, and not enough of the things that did. So, here goes the things I really enjoyed:

The Writing

Burgis' writing style was crisp and perfectly descriptive, and to her absolute credit she was able to differentiate the many POVs she created so that the voices did not blend into one. The prose were fluid and matched the time period well, helping the world-building feel incredibly real and vivid.

Charlotte and Carlo

My two favs of the novel, which is good because they're the mains! Charlotte was a character I was cheering on from the start. She's a widow, her late husband having been decades older than her and sickly for their entire marriage. As a young woman, she never really got to enjoy herself which I sympathized with. After meeting Carlo, she begins to imagine what it would be like if she ignored the expectations placed on her by her family and by society, and did things that made her genuinely happy. Carlo is a societal outcast in that he's seen as a "freak", since he's a castrato–but he's the most famous singer in Europe, so he still gets to rub elbows with royalty and the aristocracy, in a precarious understanding that he's not on their level, but his artistry is loved. He feels disillusioned with that charade, and wants to settle down in life. I really loved their slow burning romance.

Overall, Masks and Shadows was a good read, and certainly helped me pass the time on the subway rides to work every morning. If I had to give it a star rating, I'd rate it 3 out of 5. If this is a genre you're very interested in, I do recommend you give it a shot!
Profile Image for Kat.
76 reviews56 followers
September 8, 2016
Originally posted on Books & Bottles.

We are giving away a copy of Masks and Shadows and an ARC of A Congress of Secrets - USA & Canada, giveaway ends September 12th at 11:59PM MST! Check out our post to enter!

Thank you to Lisa from Pyr (Prometheus Books) for a copy in exchange for an honest review!

I am absolutely fluffed. It was in the wee hours of the morning that I finally finished Masks and Shadows and there was only a sushi date with Kassandra that interrupted my reading. I was hooked around page 30 (flag page 273 and tell me that was not the worst time to stop!) right up until the end that I didn't want to come. Waking up neighbouring siblings with gleeful squeals and gasps was a frequent occurrence that morning, and I wouldn't have it any other way because this book is amazing!

Masks and Shadows is a beautiful amalgamation of V for Vendetta, Penny Dreadful, and Phantom of the Opera (*swoon!*). Burgis' writing sings a tale full of deceit, lies, heartbreak, and love that flows across the pages with rich characters and obnoxiously decorated halls. The mysterious Carlo Morelli, an anomaly with an angelic voice, visits the castle of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy to socialize and share the gift of music at the same time as Charlotte von Steinbeck is staying with her sister (the Prince's official mistress) during her year of mourning for her late husband. What starts as a tale of opera and tentative first steps ends in terror, magic, and disaster as the facades the castle's guests built up slowly begin to crumble. Intricately woven and beautifully summarized, the plots and sub plots endued with magic bring out the best and the worst in our characters - both high and low born.

Burgis is a master at transitioning between the dozen or so characters while making each one of them unique and memorable. Where I would usually give up and stop caring, or would find myself at a complete loss as to who is who, I was following along ravenously without any doubt as to the intentions and opinions for each name that passes by. *standing ovation* I'm a little thick when it comes to names so for me to remember every one? A great feat, indeed!

I fell in love with the characters, I fell in love with the world, I fell in love with the magic (both the magic of alchemy and the magic of life), and I fell in love with Burgis' writing. Anytime I see Masks and Shadows in stores I will be sure to re-arrange the shelves to showcase this beautiful book so more people pick it up. I've been wavering over the rating from 3.5 to 5 and have finally decided that after two weeks of finishing the last page, as the only things I can remember about Masks and Shadows is how much I absolutely loved it, how beautiful it was, and how magical it was, I'm going to allot this as a 5 stars. :D So yes, please read and COME JOIN ME IN MY BOOK HANGOVER! ♥

Read the first chapter on Stephanie's site and swoon, and then Check out our latest giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Masks & Shadows AND an ARC of A Congress of Secrets!
Profile Image for Denise.
455 reviews61 followers
May 21, 2016
Some quite interesting themes at work here, and some good historical research - Esterházy, Haydn, musicians in service to one man, difficult sibling relationships, and a second-chance love story - but the book overall is unfortunately held back by lack of rhetorical chops and sloppy plotting.

This is an adult novel, but the author has cut her teeth on YA and unfortunately it shows. The book had sort of an uncomfortable Degrassi vibe to it - adult themes coming at you in squeaky teen voices. The writing reads exactly like it should for a YA novel. It's very simple. No complicated rhetorical structures, no big words, short sentences. This is not how adult novels are typically written. I stopped reading YA fic more than once or twice a year when I aged out of it, so the combo of adult things + teen writing really jumped out at me. Grown-up YA readers (and there are a ton of you guys) will probably not bat an eye at the style though, so ignore me if you read them on the regular! The narrative also head-hops around constantly to maybe 7 total characters, which I found very off-putting, it's a crude technique if you can't manage multiple-character development any other way.

The plot is about 50/50 split between a romance (between Carlo, World's Greatest Castrato (tm), no relation to that other guy named Carlo Broschi, and lonely widow Charlotte) and a magical mystery, which frankly I am still confused about. The romance has some very sweet moments, including a gender-bending masqued ball scene where they dance with each other both dressed as men, which is a bit heavy-handed on the gender-bending theme but it still quite decently done, and is probably the best scene in the book. But the romance is drastically underdeveloped, so that at the end of the book, you are so uninvested in their relationship (which is made up of two erotically charged duets, that dance, and a single kiss) you're just as confused as any of their contemporaries as to why exactly they claim to be in love.

The magical elements in the book are the real Achilles heel though, as they are the backbone of the mystery plot which keeps the whole narrative moving along, yet they are entirely undeveloped. You have none of the key questions about any magical world answered - What is magic? How does it work? Who can do it? What are its limits? These questions are like Fantasy Writing 101 stuff, and I'm very suprised an accomplished author skipped them.

But overall an interesting bridge book for YA - Adult readers showcasing some underexplored historical settings, just a few weak points.
Profile Image for Seregil of Rhiminee.
590 reviews40 followers
February 9, 2017
Originally published at Risingshadow.

Stephanie Burgis' Masks and Shadows is a first-rate historical fantasy novel for adult readers who are interested in lush, romantic and well written stories. It offers engaging entertainment and thrilling moments to readers who are willing to let themselves be immersed in a good story. It has a wide target audience, because it will appeal to many readers.

Before reading Masks and Shadows, I took the opportunity to read the author's young adult novels (The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson), because I was intrigued by her fiction. I wanted to see what kind of fiction she writes and how she has developed as an author since her first novels. I was pleased to notice that after writing a good YA fantasy trilogy she has written an excellent and entertaining novel which surpasses her previous works (she found a permanent place on my reading list, becase I loved everything about this novel).

As many readers are most likely aware of, historical fantasy novels are at their best excellent entertainment, because many such novels thrill us with a combination of various elements. I'm glad to say that Masks and Shadows is one of the best and most entertaining novels of its kind, because Stephanie Burgis fluently combines alchemy, opera, intrigue and historical elements to create a rich story.

Here are a few words about the story:

- The events take place in Hungary at the Eszterháza Palace in 1779.

- Charlotte von Steinbeck hears from her sister Sophie that Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (Nikolaus I) has invited a castrato to stay at the Eszterháza Palace. She has accepted her sister's invitation to spend time at the palace, but wonders if it was such a good idea after all to accept the invitation, because Eszterháza is anything but what she had expected...

- Carlo Morelli, the most famous castrato in Europe, is travelling towards the Eszterháza Palace in a carriage with the most notorious alchemist in Europe and a Prussian spy. It is his first visit to the palace...

- Anna is a newly arrived maid at the palace and doesn't know anybody there yet. She has followed her mistress there after Baron von Steinbeck's death, because the idea of an exciting adventure had appealed to her...

- Friedrich, Sophie's husband, gets a letter from Vienna. The letter informs him that his time for action has come at last...

- Soon Charlotte and Carlo find themselves caught up in a web of deceit, lies and dangerous political intrigue...

This is the beginning of a story that is rich in detail and lush in atmosphere with a strong musical theme intervowen into it. The author gradually builds up tension towards the climax, which will satisfy readers.

The cast of characters is diverse and large, and the characterisation is wonderfully nuanced and poignant. The author brings each of the important characters alive with her descriptions, but she also pays attention to writing about the minor characters who enrich the story and its amostphere.

Charlotte von Steinbeck is a decent and proper woman who is anything but her awful sister Sophie, who has become the mistress of Prince Nikolaus. She is a widow who has lost her husband and has retreated to the countryside to rest and regain her confidence.

Carlo Morelli is a famous and common born castrato who arrives at the palace as a guest. He has become a rich man who has been invited into many places. He is observant and has his own opinions about people and how they live their lives.

Anna, Charlotte's maid, is an interesting character, because she's a natural born singer with a good voice. She's untrained, but very talented. It was fun to read about her training.

The famous composer Joseph Haydn makes an interesting appearance in this novel. His position at the Prince's Palace is described well. Because I like classical music, I enjoyed reading about him and his work.

The author fluently wrote about relationships between the characters. Reading about what happened between Charlotte and Carlo was especially enjoyable, because they were strangers who became acquainted and got to know each other. Their feelings and lives were explored exceptionally well.

I think that readers who are familiar with European history will greatly enjoy this novel. Stephanie Burgis beautifully evokes a distinct vision of 18th century Hungary and brings the glory of the Eszterháza Palace fully to life with her words and sentences. She writes effortlessly about what happens at the palace and fluently describes what kind of lives its owners, its performers and visitors have and how they deal with problems. I think it's good to mention that you don't necessarily have to know anything about history in order to enjoy the story, because the author makes sure that you'll have a great time reading it.

The contraints of society are explored in a realistic way in this novel. The author focuses on writing about many little things that affect the characters' lives and tells how they behave in the presence of others. The characters have a lot on their mind, because their actions reflect on themselves. Some of them have made promises under dubious circumstances and feel trapped, because disobeying commands would lead to severe consequences, and others have other kind of problems.

I think it's great that the author writes about 18th century Hungary, because it's a seriously neglected setting in this kind of fiction. Victorian novels have become increasingly popular during the recent couple of years, but unfortunately the 18th century is not very popular. In my opinion, reading about this era is fascinating, because it's the Age of Enlightenment.

The speculative fiction elements manifest themselves in the form of alchemy, the alchemist's dark magic and summoning of elementals. These paranormal elements add a lot of fascination and richness to the story.

Classical music lovers will find a lot to love in this novel. The author writes fascinatingly about opera, music and singers. The characters discuss music, their work and their lives in a realistic way, because many of them have signed a contract that binds them. The scandal concerning the two opera performers who have run away together adds additional charm to the story.

The author addresses the brutalities related to castration in a realistic and thought-provoking way. Everyone who is familiar with classical music and its dark past probably knows that castrato singers used to be popular and sought-after performers because of their beautiful and high voice (they were the predecessors of modern countertenors). In this novel, the author writes thought-provokingly about how Carlo feels about his life and what it would've been like if he had not been subjected to the brutal act of mutilation.

The author's writing style is excellent and engaging, and her descriptive prose is a pleasure to read. I was amazed at how well she wrote about the happenings and the characters, because she never let the story become cumbersome or dull. She blends historical accuracy and many historical details with fresh and imaginative fiction in a stunning way.

In certain ways, Masks and Shadows is a bit similar to Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven, but is wholly original and features a different kind of a story. I think that readers who have read Cry to Heaven will most likely enjoy this novel.

Because I found this novel intriguing and entertaining, I'll soon read the author's next historical fantasy novel, Congress of Secrets. I have high expectations of it and look forward to reading it.

By the way, if you want to add a bit of additional enjoyment to your reading experience I recommend listening to classical music while reading the novel. When I read this novel, I listened to a few pieces composed by Joseph Haydn and invested a bit of time into listening to a couple of performances by the talented countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.

Stephanie Burgis' Masks and Shadows is an elegant literary symphony in which the author displays mastery of nuanced characterisation, romance, opera, intrigue and dark alchemy. It's a beautiful and lush novel filled with style, substance and deliciously dark moments. If you're intrigued by historical fantasy fiction with intrigue and romance elements, you should take a look at this novel, because it's brilliant entertainment.

Excellent historical fantasy fiction!
Profile Image for Melissa.
1,009 reviews36 followers
April 29, 2016
Oh the cover intrigued me and so did the blurb and yet I really didn't know what to expect in this book. I just knew it was about a historical setting, opera, and lots of music... and a bit of the paranormal thrown in. Yea, I knew this one would be for me.

The book goes through several POVs but what was confusing at first was just remembering who was who and that would have been a problem for me if it was only one POV. Quickly, it did settle in my head enough that the book took off and then shortly after that I had all the players securely in my head.

A mystery flows through the book and we know that the Prince is a big part of it. However, what is being planned and how much damage will be wrought? There is an undercurrent of secret society with a demon at it's center but those things tended to stay at the periphery until the end. The end culminates with the mystery surrounding the story, music and a whole lot of explosive magic. It was a complete ending.

I enjoyed that aspect of the story but what really captured me was the romance between Carlo a castrato and Charlotte who was newly widowed. Both have let society dictate their lives and both have suffered for it. They also need to learn to trust and it is hard trusting one another. However, I really was impressed with Charlotte shunning the drama for truth and that helped the romance move forward. I didn't quite see why Carlo loved Charlotte as much as I was able to see the reverse, but it didn't matter as I was still swept up in their romance. This part of the story really moved the rest of the mystery along more than the other POVs in the story.

I give this book 4 stars. I really enjoyed the historical setting, the feel of Hyden's music, and the mystery behind it all. I recommend it to those that love historical mystery fiction with a bit of paranormal at the fringes.
Profile Image for Kara-karina.
1,658 reviews252 followers
April 9, 2016
It was such a breezy, captivating read! It's no secret that I love fiction connected to art - music, dance, singing, drawing, you name it. There is just something magical, irresistible in it for me.

Masks and Shadows is doubly that. Some of its charm is the setting - opera! opulence! courtly intrigues! secret societies! Aah, it took me right back to my teens when I discovered Consuelo by George Sand ( a book about a young, beautiful opera singer in 18th century plus lots of secret societies stuff). Also George Sand was one awesome lady herself. But I digress.

Masks and Shadows has a lovely, quiet and sweet love story between a young widow who is a talented musician, and a famous castrato opera singer. However it's only one of its plot threads. There are conspiracies, spies and alchemy, operas and broken hearts. It's a well-written book which captures the spirit of the era, its complicated mannerisms and under it all, a naivete and hunger for all things mystical.

I can't find any drawbacks in this read. It's great historical fiction, it has horror elements, the dialogues are sharp and realistic, the involvement of historical figures is very believable and the rest of the characters are engaging as heck. It was just really well done. Very much recommended. Read Stephanie Burgis's guest post if you want to know more about her research into this book.
Profile Image for Hallie.
954 reviews124 followers
December 28, 2016
I think the best thing I can do is link to Sherwood's wonderful review, as she says it all. Opera is not really my thing, so I had a harder time loving what the book did so well. Also, my least favourite type of romance is the super-experienced guy + virginal woman, which has as much to do with worries about STDs in historical fiction as anything. But, I loved Charlotte and Anna, and found the historical setting fascinating, so it was good. Looking forward to reading Congress of Secrets.
Profile Image for Jenn.
Author 24 books223 followers
January 11, 2016
I did something unusual after I finished this book -- I immediately turned to page 1 and started reading it again! I completely fell in love with these characters and this setting. I don't read historicals often, but Burgis is able to work in so many great setting details without overwhelming or confusing me. The romance *really* worked for me -- I love more unconventional heroes!
Profile Image for Catherine.
Author 59 books124 followers
December 26, 2017
Very enjoyable historical fantasy set in the Hapsburg Empire, featuring alchemists, Masons, opera and a host of other interesting things. I don't think I've every read a fantasy with a castrato as the love interest before, but Burgos makes him intriguing, and the romance between the singer and the baroness is charming and believable. Highly recommended!
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