– goodreads –
I knew I have to read this immediately as soon as I saw the blurb. Historical fantasy set in 1779 Habsburg empire, featuring alchemy, a castrato, a widow, and a Prussian spy? At a time where I’m explicitly interested in the 18th century? (My current focuses might be France and Prussia, but I’ll take what I can get.) Yes. Yes please.
And this time, I was not disappointed. It was so much my catnip.
The plot mostly revolves around Charlotte, a widowed noblewoman who came to Esterháza to visit her sister (the mistress of the prince), Carlo, a castrato singer who’s visiting as a guest, and a bunch of creepy alchemists who are clearly up to something sinister.
What I loved the most about it was that clearly, a lot of love and research went into it. Crossdressing at a masquerade ball? Perfectly historically accurate, and my favourite detail. There’s even a note in the end on what characters and major events was accurate and where it diverged from history for the sake of the story. Music is also very important (the author studied music history and did her PhD in Vienna!) and we even get Haydn as a side character.
The romance between Charlotte and Carlo was also something I enjoyed, not exactly traditional as far as romances go. I also found it interesting that not everyone’s ending was happy. Some side characters died, some antagonists escaped consequences. Uncommon for books with a romance subplot this prominent.
The only complaint I have is that the book could really do with a tighter focus. There are a lot of POVs, especially for such a short book. The Prussian spy I was looking forward to was, in the end, a completely pointless character that could have been removed without affecting the plot in any way whatsoever, and there’s not just one, but two unwilling alchemist accomplices that kind of blended together in my mind.
Regardless, I found it to be a very fast, engaging read. The short story epilogue, Shadow Duet, telling us what happened to Charlotte and Carlo after the ending of Masks and Shadows is also well worth checking out.
Recommended to: fans of historical fantasy who are sick of England as a setting, music nerds
Not recommended to: those who prefer books with a tighter focus