Review: MASKS AND SHADOWS by Stephanie Burgis

MasksandShadowsMasks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
(Historical Fantasy; Pyr 2016)

4/5 Stars

Several intriguing guest arrive at opulent Esterháza in 1779 and take their places in a court drama only heightened by a dark presence that threatens them all. This might be closer to “historical horror,” but it didn’t creep me out exactly. Keep a lookout for actual people and events.

Writer Brain: 4/5 Stars. Good solid writing, fun characters, with twists and turns both expected and unexpected. It’s tough to craft a story around a big reveal–in this case, people dying in grotesque ways with the actual nature of the killer being the unknown–without giving the reader a slight pang of disappointment when it happens. The reveal closes doors and, if you’ve got an inventive reader, nixes all sorts of possibilities they might have been gunning for. Not that it can’t be done really well, but I was slightly disappointed, not because Burgis’s killer isn’t a great idea, but because I’d grown a bit attached to the one I’d conjured up.

Huge props to Burgis for dealing with some gender identity issues here (a primary cast member is a musico/castrati) and doing so with a deft nod to both historical perspectives and more modern views.

Editor Brain: 5/5 Stars. I really enjoyed what seemed like reverse engineering when it came to the plot. The climactic event happened in real life, but Burgis gave it a fantastic/horroresque twist and even mechanisms for being recast as mundane in history books. It seems like a great way to launch into a historic fantasy title. It’s tough for several reasons. In this technique, you acquire a cast of characters that may be rather immutable depending on how well-documented your slice of history is and how well-known your characters are. You have a set timeline, a set framework of technology and beliefs, and a set setting. But all of these things can be broken, flouted, or tweaked if you buy yourself enough good-will with your readers. Maybe this means giving them something really awesome to cling to or reasoning logical enough to change their perspective. This is especially necessary, I find, when introducing the fantastic element(s), whatever they are. They may or may not unseat the rest of your historical constructs, but I’ve always found that the more care the writer takes with this building of trust, the better the result is. And I think Burgis manages this well.

Reader Brain: 4/5 Stars. I enjoyed this one. It was a good fun read. The multiple close-3rd-person POVs didn’t switch off so much that they were annoying and the cast was just big enough to give good perspective on what was going on. And there wasn’t a ton of overlap in the more active scenes, which I vastly prefer. I was disappointed, at first, that Charlotte’s main plot feels like so much of a romance, but I was delighted at the depth that Burgis brought to it in the end. But some of the side characters were rather flat; it made for a concise tale, but left me wanting a bit more nuance around the edges. And though the [spoiler] didn’t scare me outright or match my suspicions, it did some stuff I definitely didn’t expect. So, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.

Disclaimer: I received a free digital ARC of this title from Pyr via Edelweiss.

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