I received this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
Historical fantasy is quickly becoming one of my favorite genres: on one side, the mix between established history and fantastic elements creates a unique blend that enhances both components, while on the other, curiosity about any given time period compels me to search for further information and therefore to enrich my knowledge base. No one could ask more from a book, besides its intrinsic entertainment value…
Masks and Shadows focuses on the Hapsburg Empire at the end of the 18th Century, blending fictional characters with historical figures like Prince Nikolaus Ezsterhazy and Empress Marie Therese, and flowing into a lively, fast-paced narrative whose momentum is carried by continuous changes in point of view, handled with such dexterity that they are never confusing or distracting. Mirroring the operatic plays that figure quite extensively in the course of the story, this huge cast acts indeed like a well-rehearsed production, staging a sequence of conspiracies, revelations, plots-within-plots and romantic entanglements worth of the best composer – and it’s no coincidence that Franz Joseph Haydn figures prominently here as a sort of connecting link between all of these elements.
At Ezterhaza, Prince Nikolaus’ Versailles-like summer residence, the crowd of distinguished guests is joined by Carlo Morelli, Europe’s most famous castrato singer, by a renowned alchemist and a would-be writer suspected of being a spy: the stage is set from the very early pages for a story where mystery, magic and secrets abound, and where danger and conspiracies lurk under the gilded patina of wealth and power. At the palace another main character is already in residence: Charlotte von Steinbeck, widowed sister of Sophie, the Prince’s mistress.
No two people could be more different than these sisters: Sophie is quickly shown as an airhead who revels in her station as a powerful man’s mistress, a selfish and vain creature who doesn’t care about the people or sensibilities she tramples on, as long as she can keep enjoying her exalted status. Charlotte, on the other hand, is nothing but dutiful and obedient: just as she submitted to her marriage to an ailing man old enough to be her grandfather, so now she submits to her sister’s whims, even justifying them as her duty. She embodies all that is proper and respectable, and does not seem to struggle under the weight of so many obligations: at first I felt some irritation at her attitude, no matter how properly it fit the time’s mores, because Charlotte felt so totally passive. But little by little I started to understand how she had been molded into that shape by her enclosed – and enclosing – world: only by getting out of her secluded existence she starts to realize there is more to life, that the boundaries of her world need not be so constricting. It’s not a thunderclap revelation, since Charlotte comes into this new awareness in small increments, and still feeling guilty for what she perceives as stealing some space of her own, but she ultimately gets there, and following that progress is both enjoyable and satisfying.
One of the major contributions to Charlotte’s awakening is that of Carlo Morelli: since their first meeting it looks like a given that they will become close, but the author played this development with a light, almost shy hand, thus avoiding to make the relationship look like a tired trope. What drives them together, more than anything else, is the unexpressed feeling of being outsiders: Carlo because of his nature, one that makes him both a sought-after guest and a gossip-worthy freak (there is an enlightening conversation between Sophie and Charlotte, where the former wonders if they should really refer to the singer as a ‘he’, since he lacks the so-called manly attributes); and Charlotte because in such “exalted” company of jaded and spoiled aristocrats devoid of depth, her cultural sensibilities make her stand out like a sore thumb. Music – and there is a great deal of it, both played and discussed – is the vehicle through which Charlotte starts to feel and express her newfound need for freedom, and music is what brings her closer to Carlo.
What I most approved in Charlotte’s journey, and what I applaud the author for, is that the relationship with Carlo Morelli is only a means for the young widow’s breaking of her chains, but not the end. The moment when Charlotte understands she wants more is not tied to her feelings for the singer, but to a dramatic circumstance in which she realizes that life is far too short to be wasted, and that she has not lived enough, experienced enough. That she will choose to travel that path with him is a consequence of that understanding, but not the main reason – and this is surprisingly and delightfully modern. Carlo’s changes somewhat mirror Charlotte’s, since it’s from exposure to her plain demeanor that he understands how tired he is of the cruel hypocrisy of the aristocratic world: in a way they transform each other, again belying the one-way direction of such events that’s typical of less original writing.
The novel’s cast of secondary players is rich, embracing the whole spectrum of characters from good to bad, from exploiters to victims, with a few honorable mentions as Prince Nikolaus’ wife – forced to bear her husband’s blatant infidelity with all the grace and dignity of a true lady – or Anna, Charlotte’s maid who is fortuitously launched into a bright career as a singer; and yet there is another important character I want to spend a few words about, and it’s music: the descriptions of music – be it played with instruments or sung – is always quite inspired and contributes to create the rich tapestry of this story. As a lover of classical music, I was aware of Franz Joseph Haydn’s existence and yet never listened to any of his works, so that when I did, spurred by this novel, I discovered a great number of compositions that are both pleasant and uplifting, just like the personality of the man described in Masks and Shadows. As a tribute to him, I’m adding a link to one of his pieces, in the hope of sharing this discovery with everyone who will read this.
My only criticism toward Masks and Shadows comes from the feeling that this fascinating historical period is not explored enough: while I’m aware that the brief mentions contained in the story can compel readers to search for more information (as I did), still I feel that a few more details would have added depth to the background and that some of the characters and their motivations would have been clearer. The author probably wanted to avoid any danger of long exposition, and that’s to be commended, but I can’t shake the feeling she erred on the side of caution… This said, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and would love to read more along these same lines.
I received this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
This kind of anthology is usually centered round a core theme that individual authors choose to develop as they wish, while here I found a different interpretation: there is a common background, concerning the invasion of an alien species called Makh-ra, who have conquered Earth and are ruling it and exploiting its resources. Therefore each author had to work inside a set of pre-established parameters, giving this anthology a very different feel than usual – in other words, this reads more like a novel developed through a change of POV at each new chapter, rather than a collection of disjointed stories, and that gives it a more cohesive feel that I found quite enjoyable.
Another point of interest in these collected stories is that they don’t focus on the actual invasion: that’s already in the past, one generation removed or thereabouts. What the anthology chose to show is the aftermath, the way in which people and customs re-arrange themselves in the face of occupation, the dichotomy in outlook between those who remember life as it was pre-invasion and those, like the younger people, who have known nothing else. The Earth that comes through these stories is quite a dismal place: the stripping of resources by the Makh-ra has generated shortages (like water, for example, that’s subject to rationing) and supplies are not as plentiful as before; cities present large ruined areas, some as the result of battles during the invasion, others because the changes in economy have decreed the end of once-flourishing activities. The separation between those with power and influence and the rest of the populace has increased, and only individuals who have chosen to collaborate with the new rulers can enjoy a semblance of normal life.
“Semblance” being the operative word here, because the Makh-ra’s rule is far from a benevolent one: the overall flavor of this situation strongly reminded me of the stories of occupied France under the Nazi invasion in WWII, with a curfew in place, strong restrictions on travel and frequent searches of places or people suspected of aiding rebels. As it happened in that historical period, many have chosen to collaborate with the alien invaders: some for personal gain, some because they have no other choice, with all the possible variations in between the two opposites. There are a few instances of attempts at integration as well, the case in point being that of the three-part story from the anthology’s editors, that acts as a sort of frame for the others: here a human FBI agent works side-by-side with his Makh-ra colleague, and they manage to reach a sort of mutual understanding through shared work and dangers.
In general, though, the Makh-ra act as conquerors and oppressors, and even though some of them seem willing to adopt a few human traits and preferences, still they maintain an air of arrogance, the inner conviction that conquest is something of a god-given right stemming from superiority in mind, body and customs. The Makh-ra, however, also represent the weakest feature of this anthology in my opinion, because they are not alien enough: I’m not speaking about their appearance, which is roughly humanoid except for their taller, stronger frame and the dark, light-sensitive eyes. The lack of alien-ness I perceived comes from the mind-view that seems more like that of a stolid bureaucrat, rather than that of an off-world creature: granted, this allowed for many of the interesting developments portrayed in the stories, but still I could not avoid the comparison with the Star Trek aliens – my main disappointment with the various incarnations of the series – who are nothing more than humans with strange noses or foreheads. In my opinion, to be truly alien a creature requires one to exhibit some outlandish traits, some quality that is so far removed from our own experience that the sheer otherness of it jumps straight at you. Sadly, that was not the case here, though it was not a major problem.
The quality of the stories is generally good – with anthologies it’s a given that some might appeal more than others – and there are two of them that I found truly outstanding: Strange Alliance (by Cliff Allen) concerning a human who has risen through the Makh-ra ranks to a position of prestige, and Traitor (by Adam Lance Garcia) focusing on the woman who aided and abetted the alien invasion, and the consequences on her personal life. These two were several steps above the others, breathing life and consistency into their characters.
In short, this is a peculiar kind of collection that’s certainly worth exploring and offers a new outlook on a well-known trope.