Author: Stephanie Burgis
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural fiction
Published: expected April 12
Source: publishers via edelweiss
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.
There were some excellent moments and ideas to be found in here but in the most part, Masks and Shadows is hampered by a distant and rotating third-person narration, and a lack of length and time to develop the characters into more than names. I liked certain of the elements of this historical and supernatural story - the conspiracy, the music angle, the mysterious and unknowable forces -- but others were unfulfilled and shallow in their execution -- like the romantic plotline, which held no chemistry, and the motivation of more than one or two of the characters.
In this author's interesting alternate version of history in Europe, alchemy actually works and can be used for many things, including in political plots. The supernatural element of Masks and Shadows is rather minimal for the larger part of the novel, but was still important to the overall plot that connects the characters. I thought the author combined the two elements with restraint and without infodumping reasons for why it was possible. That smart restraint kept it from overwhelming the plot or becoming too farfetched and also added another layer of tension and magic to the ongoing storyline. In comparison, the more political of the plotlines set at Eszterháza felt both less intense and less focused; because of the way it tied in with the less mundane, it never felt adequately set up beforehand or explained afterwards.
The characters here are rather bland, and flat. They are not helped by the distant nature of the way 3rd person is used, or the way that the POV jumps around frequently in each chapter. There are just a few characters in the myriad group that do have enough presence and individuality to stand out -- that group being comprised of only Morelli and Charlotte. However they too are more predictable than new, and their minor plotline together is unsatisfactory due to the haste in which it comes together and because of the distinct lack of chemistry between them. Anna could maybe join the list of comparatively better-defined characters but her arc felt somewhat convenient more than once over the course of the book.
There's more good than bad to be found in reading Masks and Shadows but it's another unique one that had potential for more invention and more involvement; the premise was excellent and the execution was somewhat faltered. The plot stutters around in the beginning and the end is too jumbled for the finality needed, and the characters are unevenly drawn. The author's love for music is the highlight and comes through in the character of Anna, unlikely as her plot arc is. Overall, this was a mixed bag of historical and supernatural elements and an average read.