PrintE-mail Written by Ian White

It is 1779. Recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck has just arrived at the Eszterhaza Palace, where her sister Sophie is Prince Nikolaus’s mistress. Among the other visitors are the famous castrato singer Carlo Morelli, Edmund Guernsey - a supposedly English gentleman who might possibly be a Prussian spy - and the mysterious alchemist Ignaz von Born. Events move swiftly. While Charlotte finds herself romantically drawn towards the castrato, two of the actors in the palace’s opera company are found horribly murdered and a mysterious smoke-like creature roams the corridors. Charlotte’s maid is recruited by the opera’s Kapellmeister, the renowned composer Joseph Haydn, to replace one of the dead singers, while another member of the company is recruited into a secret society whose dark robed members seem to be both everywhere and nowhere. And then there is the matter of the second alchemist Count Radamowsky, who performs a terrifying séance that none of them, will forget. All of these elements combine into a devious plot driven by black magic and political intrigue - Charlotte and Carlo must penetrate the masks worn by seemingly everyone in the palace, if they are to prevent an assassination that could change the course of countless lives.

Masks and Shadows is YA author Stephanie Burgis’ adult debut and although it isn’t completely successful, it is a hugely entertaining work of fiction, weaving real-life historical characters and locations into an engrossing and richly embroidered supernaturally enhanced stew. Burgis’ descriptions of the opera and the powers of music are especially compelling (if you never wanted to listen to opera, this book may well change your mind) and she juggles a vast cast of characters extremely well while keeping the tension high.

It’s an intricate story but Burgis’ never bogs the reader down in unnecessary detail, which is quite a trick considering how much historical and alchemical ground she has to cover. The only real disappointments are the climax, which feels a little bolted-on and winds everything up rather too quickly, and the tentative attraction between Charlotte and Carlo which doesn’t really convince. Burgis’ prose might also be too blushingly romantic for some tastes, although this may be a stylist choice that works well considering the time period she’s writing about. All in all, a terrific book that you’ll have trouble putting down once you start reading.


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