Masks and Shadows
by Stephanie Burgis
Review by Mel Jacob
Pyr Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781633881327
Date: 12 April 2016 List Price $17.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
A romantic historical fantasy during the reign of the Hapsburgs with music, mystery, magic, and love, Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis follows two sisters, a singing maid, a castrati, and two alchemists bent on being the power behind the throne. Along the way, "Papa" Haydn composes a new opera as evil threatens all.
Charlotte, the widowed Baroness von Steinbeck, is visiting her sister Sophie, the mistress of Prince Esterhazy. While Charlotte loves her sister dearly, she is appalled at what her sister has become. Beautiful and pampered, Sophie delights in her position as mistress to Prince Esterhazy and the wealth showered upon her. Married to a lieutenant in the Prince’s service, Sophie has everything she's always wanted.
Widowed Charlotte has agreed to spend a year with Sophie if only to avoid her mother's attempt to marry her off again. Her last husband was elderly and she nursed him until he died. Charlotte prefers to be a widow and focus on her music. She is delighted to meet Haydn, the Prince's Kapellmeister and Carlo Morelli, world famous musico (castrato). Her maid, Anna, has a lovely untrained soprano voice, but Charlotte has to caution her not to disturb others with her singing.
Plots abound. A group of Freemasons led by a noted alchemist, another alchemist, and the Prince all have schemes in process. The Prince's resident alchemist has managed to gain control of a bloodthirsty elemental. Intended for use in wars against the enemies of Austria. The Prince, unbeknown by others, has also used it to rid himself of two singers who fled, breaking their contracts with him. When the Prince asks for a demonstration of the creature at a dinner, the affair goes awry when the creature attacks a guest. Meanwhile the Freemasons recruit new members within the Prince's household, but for what purpose is not revealed.
Charlotte is attracted to Carlo, but also aware such an attachment would be condemned, especially by her sister Sophie. She struggles with her feelings, which Carlo appears to return.
Haydn's new opera needs replacements for the dead singers and Carlo, having heard her sing, recommends Anna. Charlotte encourages her and a new career opens for Anna. However, she doesn't speak Italian and must be coached to manage the correct pronunciation. A young guard related to the Prince decides to make Anna his mistress despite her protestations.
All these strands come together when the Emperor and Empress make an unexpected visit and lives are threatened.
Overall, Masks and Shadows is an interesting book. Burgis manages to handle the diverse elements well and takes the reader along for the ride. There's enough fantasy/magic for fantasy fans and the romances are satisfying. Look for Congress of Secrets in November 2016.