the Little Red Reviewer

Masks and Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

Posted on: June 28, 2017

Masks and Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

published April 2016

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher







I’ve been reading a lot of “thinky” books lately,  books that whether or not they were meant to drill into my brain and set the neurons a light all over the place, that is exactly what they did.   I was looking for something lighter, an easy read.


Stephanie Burgis’s Masks and Shadows has been sitting in my ARC pile for over a year. It received a lot of attention when it came out last year, and garnered many positive reviews. The cover art is super pretty!  The concept of the book sounds right up my alley – historical fiction with lots of romance, intrigue, and magic! But it never quite got my attention enough to pick it up.  I like political intrigue, and I usually enjoy historical fiction / historical fantasy.  I’ve been known to enjoy stories with some romantic subplots. And I was in the market for a lighter read. So I picked it up. If the author’s name rings a bell, it’s because she is famous for the mid-grade fantasy series Kat, Incorrigible.


The year is 1779, the location is the opulent Esterhaza Palace in Hungary. As you do when you’re a royal who just built your own version of Versailles, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy hosts nobles and royals for months at a time, including a famous castrato singer, Carlo Morelli.  The Prince’s mistress, Sophia, has invited her recently widowed sister Charlotte von Steinbeck to stay at the palace as well.  In the first handful of chapters, we are very quickly introduced to a very large cast of characters – Charlotte and her spoiled sister Sophie; Charlotte’s young and naive maid Anna; Carlo Morelli the famous singer;  Herr Hadyn the famous composer;  Franz,  a singer in the Prince’s opera troupe; the rest of the singers in the troupe, van Born the alchemist;  Mr. Guersney, who claims to be an English writer; and Friedrich von Hollner, Sophie’s long suffering husband.  It was a lot to keep track of, to the point of distraction.


The plot settles into and handful of intertwined plots including the widowed Charlotte and Carlo having immediate romantic chemistry between each other,  Franz and Friedrich getting involved in some kind of mysterious political maneuvering, Sophie being needy and petty to the point of ridiculousness, Charlotte’s maid Anna becoming a singer with the Prince’s opera company,  demonstrations of the paranormal at the palace, and Morelli’s inward depression and being a plaything of the nobles.

Again, a lot to keep track of.  The plot that I found myself most invested in was the burgeoning romance between Charlotte and Carlo.  Her life has revolved around doing whatever her family and proprietary demand of her – being married off at 18, never complaining about anything, and acting the proper widow’s part. Carlo’s life also revolves around doing what is demanded of him, namely traveling around Europe singing in royal courts, and knowing every minute that he will always be seen as a physical freak, never seen as an equal. Had the novel not been bogged down with all the other plot lines, there could have been so much more character development and relationship development between these two characters.


I was also entertained by Anna’s plotline. Her singing voice is beautiful but untrained, and she’s got a lot of Italian to learn. The opera company adopts her pretty quickly, and just about every man who sees her throws themselves at her. The way the guys fight over her attentions (and she’s not much interested in any of them) came off as inadvertently comedic. Anna’s character development never seems to get past overly naive ingenue.


Burgis has certainly done her historical research. Locations, musicians, royals and politics, royals bargaining with each other for this or that, all of that is factually correct, she did a fine job.  I liked that she put a short afterward where she talks about the characters that were wholly invented for the story, and if they were based on real people.

Unfortunately, Masks and Shadows failed in a lot of ways for me.  The characters came off as one dimensional and then easily predictable, the too-many plotlines meant there wasn’t time or space to fully flesh out any of them,  and I was frustrated at the complete lack of payoff at all at the end of the novel. And let me tell you, that was a week of reading for what felt like zero payoff.  There were plenty of hints here and there that these characters had much more to them that we were seeing, but rarely did those scenes go anywhere. When it came down to it, the book was all style and no substance. Remember the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola? That’s a very pretty, and fun movie to watch (I like costume period pieces). I watch it for the style, the over the topness, the flounce. There’s no substance, and you’re not watching it to learn about history.  Reading Masks and Shadows felt like watching that movie, but with even less substance.


At least it had pretty cover art.




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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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