“Did I tell you Niko’s invited a Castrato to stay?”
“What?” Charlotte von Steinbeck nearly spilled hot chocolate all across her silken sheets. She tightened her grip on the ridiculously fragile, overpoweringly expensive cup, and sighed. Her sister had done it on purpose, she was certain.
Sunlight streamed in through the open windows of Charlotte’s guest bedroom, sparking off the gilded leaves that edged every blue-and-white surface, and turning her sister Sophie’s unpowdered blonde hair into an incongruous halo.
“Oh, I suppose we ought to call him a musico, to be polite. But you know what they really are.” Sophie’s eyes glinted with mischief.
It is 1799, and Eszterháza palace is the destination for the music-loving aristocracy of the Habsburg empire. One of the guests in Charlotte von Steinbeck, a recently widowed Baroness who is staying with her younger sister Sophie, recently installed as the mistress of the palace’s owner Prince Nikolaus. Also in residence is Joseph Haydn, the famous composer, who is in charge of the Prince’s private opera company, and Carlo Morelli, the celebrated Castrato singer. But the Palace is host to other guests too, not all of whom are showing who they really are.
I was so excited when Rachel told me about this book, which is set in Hungary at the end of the 18th Century, and not just because it’s perfect for my current musical theme! When I was a teenager I had kind of a Thing about Hungary: I had a Hungarian pen friend, learnt Hungarian, wrote my A-level History coursework on King Matthias Corvinus and visited Budapest three times in four years! So it’s fair to say I picked up Masks and Shadows with no small amount of excitement, and I was not disappointed.
The plot has at its heart the aforementioned opera, as several members of the company are involved in different intrigues and plots, and the narrative drives towards a dramatic performance at the end of the book. But the opera is also the thematic focus of the story, which is about the extent to which people are showing their true selves or whether they playing a part, be that conforming to the role that a rigid society expects of them, or concealing something more sinister.
Our main characters are Charlotte and Carlo, who bond initially over their shared love of music, but struggle to reconcile their growing attraction with their utterly different positions in society. I enjoyed that both of them were older than the typical fantasy protagonists, and that both were coming to the partnership with some emotional baggage. We also follow Anna, Charlotte’s maid who is a secretly a wonderful singer, Sophie’s discarded husband Fredrich, and disgruntled opera singer Franz. Each of these characters has a clear and believable motivation, and their stories interact cleverly with the others’ to create a very well-considered plot. Some of the other characters work less well, I found the Prince a bit one-dimensional, and the ultimate antagonist not set up well enough at the beginning that the reveal had much of an impact.
My only other criticism is that the ending and aftermath happen rather quickly, especially given the slow and suspenseful buildup from the vague sense of unease to the drastic consequences of what has just transpired, but after reading a bit more about the history of Eszterháza palace, I realised that the climax of the book is based on a real historical event, and so this makes more sense in the context of this constraint.
Definitely recommended if you like any kind of historical fantasy, Masks and Shadows is out tomorrow and available from Amazon.