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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

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Masks and Shadows



Stephanie Burgis



(Pyr, April 2016, tpb, 316 pp.)


Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Masks and Shadows takes place in the year 1799 in what is now present day Hungary and is of the sub-genre made popular by Tim Powers, now known as the "secret history." Many of the characters actually lived, including the famous operatic composer Franz Joseph Haydn, and Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. The action takes place in, and on the grounds of, historic Esterhaza Palace (known as the Hungarian Versailles) and concerns an attempt to assassinate the Hapsburg emperor and empress.

Two major storylines fuel the story, both set within the well drawn backdrop of the setting, which the author has extensively researched and brought to life, meticulously interweaving fact with fiction.

One story thread permeating the novel is that of the historical alchemist Ignaz von Born, who was also a Freemason and political schemer. Here his schemes and very presence at the Palace take on a hidden, but quite evil aspect, for it is his secret, unholy dealings with the supernatural that cast a dark pall over the entire proceedings (especially so after conjuring up in the presence of others a swirling, deadly something from the beyond, and passes the creature off as a mere parlor trick), as his ultimate plan involves the fate of all present, as well as dire ramifications for the Hapsburg Empire.

The other primary story thread involves two people, Charlotte von Steinbeck and Carlo Morelli (two of the very few fictional creations in the story). Charlotte has come to the country to visit her sister, to regroup following the death of her older husband. Her sister happens to be the mistress of Prince Nikolaus, which relationship presents its own in-house problems, even given the social etiquette of the time as to what is and is not acceptable, or the norm (no matter the time period jealousies always seem to be a staple of the human condition). Charlotte is the central figure of the novel. The other almost co-equal figure is Carlo Morelli, one of the most famous and eagerly sought castrato in Europe. Such castrato were major celebrities during this time and held almost rock star status among those in the nobility and high society (especially the women as strange as it may seem, but which historical records show to be true). Being able to persuade Carlo to accept the Prince's request with an extended visit to Esterhazy Palace is a major event, especially when Carlo can pick and choose to whom he offers his talents, and is a large feather in the cap of Prince Nikolaus. Carlo is to perform in a new opera by Herr Haydn, who is also patronized (and handsomely) by Prince Nikolaus. (This is historical fact. Haydn wrote many of his operas and chamber pieces while at the Esterhazy opera house; indeed, hundreds of his original scores were housed there until the opera house burned to the ground and many of Haydn's scores were forever lost.) Having Haydn and Carlo perform in his own palatial opera house on the Esterhazy Palace Estate is to be quite a coup for the Prince as many notable personages are to be in attendance at the premiere of this much-hyped musical extravaganza—the new opera by Haydn.

Of special interest is the unusual relationship that develops between the still-young widow Charlotte, and the castrato Carlo. At first glance one might think this possible romance (at least when it comes to the eros type of love as opposed to the agape or universal/higher form of love, if you will) to be unworkable for the obvious reason. Not necessarily so. Cursory research into whether castrati may still be able to perform sexual intercourse provides numerous circumstances where it is possible, only one of which depends on how early a young boy was castrated. Beyond a certain age when castrated, some castrati have been known to perform sexually (though with certain side effects related to feeling, and without the fear of impregnation; they are the perfect form of birth control). While the relationship has its fits and starts for both Carlo and Charlotte, with deeply examined feelings and internal questioning of the pros and cons from both, it is Carlo who is more troubled by his feelings for Charlotte. We have grown to empathize with both, but it is Carlo's emotional struggle—given his physical circumstances—that we feel more keenly. Whether it works out between them I shall not reveal here, but offer that it comes as an interesting take on the stereotypical male/female romance prevalent in almost every other story of this sort, and was a welcome surprise, handled deftly and with success.

There is much to recommend this historical fantasy cum supernatural horror novel. The accurately detailed setting and background with its various players (both of the operatic company and palace personnel), egos great and small, guilt and heroism, romantic entanglements of various sorts, blackmail, and falsehoods and murder, all unknowingly at the mercy of a secret cabal helmed by the dark alchemist Ignaz von Born, and all well designed to keep the reader involved at every turn. Recommended.

{Below: Present day Esterhazy Palace. Photo by Svitek Peter}

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Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.