As a reader, there are certain things that, if I spot them as elements in a book, make me more likely to pick that book up. It’s not simply a matter of genre, author, or cover design: it’s about certain specific things, like some aspect of setting, or a particular world-building concept, or a specific character type. Either way, if I spot it and it presses certain buttons, I will snatch that book up whether or not I’ve heard of its author or seen any hype about it. I’m certain that this is not the sort of decision-making that leads to finding all the best reads, consistently, but what would life be if one did not gamble from time to time? At the very least, this sort of gambling is not likely to cause much damage to my health and personal finances.
However, it also means that I can slip up. There have been times when I’ve picked up a book because it had elements that appealed to me, but said book turned out to be less than satisfactory, or sometimes even outright terrible. Still, there are days when I take the gamble, just in case I actually manage to find something that’s really, really good but hasn’t been hyped or just hasn’t crossed my radar for whatever reason.
That was the case when I picked up Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis. Set in Hungary during the year 1779, the action of the entire novel takes place in Eszterháza Palace, a gorgeous structure built by the Austrian Eszterházy family around what was once a hunting lodge. To this palace come Carlo Morelli, a renowned castrato singer, and Charlotte von Steinbeck, older sister to the mistress of Prince Nikolaus Eszterházy. The former comes in the hopes of winning more renown by performing under the direction of the famous composer Joseph Haydn at Eszterháza’s famous opera house; the latter comes in the hopes that a stay with her sister will soften the edges of her grief over her husband’s death. And both find what they are seeking, in a way: the isolated beauty of Eszteráza makes everything seem like a dream – and, therefore, makes everything seem possible.
However, though the palace might seem like a veritable paradise, its gorgeous facade is merely a mask. Besides court intrigues and political scheming, the walls of Eszterháza conceal a darker, deadlier secret: one that, if uncovered, might spell the doom of not just the Eszterházy family, but the entire Hapsburg dynasty.
Now, on the surface, it might seem that this book is perfectly tailored for my tastes: 18th-century courtly setting with cloak-and-dagger intrigue action? With an opera and a masquerade? It should come as no surprise to those who know me that mixing all of those elements together in one book practically guarantees that I will read it.
At first, there was quite a great deal of promise. The first chapter introduces the most important characters, doing so relatively quickly and succinctly, with just the kind of narrative language that I find pleasant to read. Take, for example, how the sisters Charlotte and Sophie are introduced:
“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.
“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 over her own raised cup. … “I’ve heard this one’s slept with half the grand ladies in St. Petersburg. Half the gentlemen, too, according to some gossip.”
“How—? No, never mind. I don’t want to know.” Charlotte set down her cup carefully on her bedside table.
Sophie had been teasing her all through the past week, ever since Charlotte had arrived at Eszterháza. She had to learn to hide her chagrin, or she’d be tarred as the naïve country mouse forever. When had her younger sited grown so sophisticated?
In the span of a few paragraphs the reader understands who the sisters are, and some of the ways their characters might develop further: Charlotte as the somewhat-prudish elder sister, but who appears to have a little spark in her that has nothing to do with prudery, and Sophie as the lighthearted, somewhat-ditzy younger sister who nevertheless cares for her elder sister and just wants her to be happy. However, a keen reader is sure to pick up the threads of how the sisters – especially Charlotte – might change over the course of the novel, though he or she is likely willing to wait and see how it all plays out.
A little later in the same chapter, Carlo Morelli is introduced:
Carlo Morelli, the most famous castrato in Europe, looked out his own window at the clusters of straw huts that dotted the harsh brown landscape. In the distance, high walls surrounded Eszterháza Palace, home of the wealthiest nobleman in Hungary. The contrast was…instructive, to say the least.
Only two nights ago, in Vienna, an idealistic young poet had ranted at Carlo for an hour about the wonders of the shining new Enlightenment that would soon make all of Europe a paradise. That news had plainly not yet reached the Eszterházys’ serfs. The men and women who worked outside looked like skeletons, digging hopelessly for roots in the dry, arid ground, their thin frames bent by the wind that swept across the plains. Carlo had never seen such wretched poverty, even in the village where he’d grown up. Yet it was only the smell of the pigs’ filth that bothered Guernsey?
Again, in the span of two paragraphs, the reader understands Carlo’s character: a man who is aware of how he achieved his own good fortune, as well as aware of the reality that others must live with. Later on in the scene Carlo shows that he has a gift for subtle sarcasm that I found delightful to read about, and though he might not say his thoughts outright and to the faces of those around him, he is very clever at delivering an insult without making it sound like an insult – an ability I wish I had myself.
This is exactly the kind of writing I enjoy: a narrative that quickly sets the stage and introduces the characters well – especially important in a story that is, essentially, a mystery novel. All of this would have been interesting, not least because the very particular, closed setting of the novel could concentrate all of those ideas together into a story that is simultaneously rich and thrilling.
Unfortunately, “concentrated” is the very last thing this novel is. Though Charlotte and Carlo are ostensibly the novel’s “main” characters, the truth is that they must share the limelight with a handful of others characters who are not exactly very interesting. That situation, in and of itself, should not be a problem: other writers introduce many characters into their novels, and are capable of giving each character the proper attention they deserve. Sadly, Burgis does not seem to manage to do that, with the novel’s point-of-view jumping from character to character in an almost haphazard manner. I would not mind it so much if some time had been taken to actually develop all the point-of-view characters in a way that seems natural, or if the reader was allowed to spend sufficient time with each one in order to grow attached to them, but that does not happen in the least. It also doesn’t help that some of the characters are not nearly as compelling as Charlotte and Carlo, and so the reader may find himself or herself simply skimming through the bits that he or she does not find particularly interesting.
The plot is also in a similar state of disarray. There are multiple plots going on throughout the story: one with a supernatural, urban fantasy flavour; one to do with court intrigue; another to do with opera; and at least two others focused on budding romances between two different couples. While a multitude of plot-lines can be interesting, they must be handled well so that they come together coherently in the story, and not give the reader a kind of narrative whiplash as he or she moves from one plot to another. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happens in this novel: none of the various plots comes together very well. It’s as if the story cannot decide what it wants to be: a supernatural historical mystery? A historical romance? A drama about the opera? A story of political intrigue? This novel could have been one of those things, or even some of them, and it would have been a thoroughly enjoyable read. But in order to be all of them, at once, there must be a careful balance between all the necessary elements, tropes, and conventions – a balance which, unfortunately, is never achieved.
This, then, means that none of the interesting themes the story could have explored, are explored with any meaningful depth. Given its setting, characters, and plots, this novel could have tackled a great many interesting ideas about class and power in ways that are not only significant to the time period in which the story is set, but even to our current reality, our current point in history. And yet, because the plot-lines are incoherently connected, and because not all the characters who could have been important in expounding on those themes are given any time to really develop properly, none of those themes are explored with any great depth. This has the effect of making the novel feel rather shallow: an unfortunate outcome, given how the reader may have come to expect something a little richer, a little deeper, given the setting and the characters.
Overall, Masks and Shadows should be an interesting, engrossing read, but it is not. Due to a lack of development of certain characters; incoherence in both the narrative points-of-view and in the multiple plot-lines; and the shallow exploration of otherwise compelling themes, reading this novel is rather like eating a meal one expects to be substantial, but turns out to be less than satisfying.