Masks and Shadows

Written by Stephanie Burgis
Review by Elizabeth Knowles

Set in 1779 Hungary, this thick porridge of a historical fantasy combines well-researched music history, alchemy, horror, mystery, political intrigue, and an unusual romance in the opulent, isolated Eszterháza palace. Charlotte, the widowed Baroness von Steinbeck, is at the palace to visit her younger sister and to recover from some personal losses. She meets Carlo Morelli, a famous castrato singer who is performing in Prince Nikolaus’s private opera house. Josef Haydn figures largely in the story, as do a large cast of opera singers, military men, aristocrats, assassins, and not one, but two alchemists. There is even an “elemental” – a sinister cloud of smoke with red eyes, conjured up with an eye to performing evil magic.

When the Emperor and Empress of the Habsburg Empire make a visit, the stakes rise and dangers threaten even more ominously, although the story is dark from the start. Josef Haydn, and to some extent Charlotte, provide welcome normality and sanity as events spiral out of control and it seems as if evil will win the day. Heroism rises from unexpected places as the harrowing conclusion threatens to destroy so much of this beautiful palace and its inhabitants. Fans of historical music performances and period instruments should find this story especially interesting.