When Stephanie Burgis came to read at BristolCon Fringe I knew that Masks and Shadows had to go on my reading list. That was partly because I love a good historical fantasy, but mainly because one of the lead characters is a eunuch.
The book is set at the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary. Prince Nikolaus Esterházy is one of the most powerful noblemen in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He is also the employer of one Joseph Haydn, a composer of considerable note. This is history.
The heroine of the book, Charlotte, was married off to Baron von Steinbeck when she was 18 and he was old enough to be her grandfather. After many years of nursing her dying husband, Charlotte is newly widowed and has come to Eszterháza to visit her sister, Sophie, who has married a dashing young military man in the service of the Prince. When she arrives, Charlotte is stunned to find Sophie’s husband nowhere in evidence, and her sister installed as the mistress of Prince Nikolaus.
Meanwhile a carriage arrives containing three visitors. The best known is Carlo Morelli, a renowned castrato who has performed for royalty all over Europe. With him are Ignaz von Born, a notorious alchemist; and a man who calls himself Edmund Guernsey but who, in Carlo’s expert opinion, has a really poor fake English accent.
Thus we are set up for two strands of plot. One is a tale of family drama involving the staid Charlotte whose only passion is music; the selfish, empty-headed Sophie; and a person whose singing voice is legendary but who is regarded as a commoner and a freak by the people who employ him to entertain them. The other strand is a political intrigue involving Freemasons, greedy noblemen and a plot against the Emperor himself.
It is all very nicely done, and especially worth reading if you have an interest in the early history of opera. Burgis did her PhD in this field, and the book is one of the products of her research. My interest, however, is in the castrato. We don’t often see eunuchs as major characters in fantasy novels (yes, I must write about Varys at some point). When we do we normally see them via the cis gaze which assumes that they are all sad victims, and rather ignores the gender aspects of their lives. Burgis does a much better job.
There are many reasons why people in past times became eunuchs. My guess is that trans women formed only a small (though very significant to them) portion of population. The most common reason for doing so was a career choice. Many countries had significant openings in the civil service that were accessible only to eunuchs, and in renaissance Europe there was the option, for the very talented, to become a castrato. Carlo is under no illusions:
Carlo thought back to the scarecrow farmers toiling outside. Better to be a freak, and fêted by kings, than to lead that life. If his parents hadn’t listened to their village organist and taken the risk, he might well be dead by now of starvation or any one of the creeping diseases that ran amok in poor farming communities. Who would want the ability to bring more children into such circumstances?
Thanks to the organist spotting his talent young, Carlo has become rich and successful. He has been able to set his family up in business, and buy a fine house for when he eventually has to retire from the stage. In the meantime, he is one of the biggest musical celebrities in Europe and has a role to play.
Casanova, who had an interest in all things sexual, made a study of castrati. They were, apparently, greatly in demand for sexual services from the more curious and adventurous members of the nobility. Some were gay, some straight, and some happy to play either role.
Carlo identifies as a man, but none of the other people at Eszterháza see him as one, except possibly Charlotte who is an older version of the Prince’s famously beautiful mistress, much cleverer than the younger girl, and a very good pianist to boot. For Carlo, Charlotte is very dangerous, because in his position one should never risk hope.
Masks and Shadows is a great love story. On the one side we have an older woman very conscious of social propriety (especially given the disgraceful behavior of her sister). On the other we have someone viewed as a genderless freak by most of society. Burgis portrays them both as attractive to anyone not blinded by social convention. It is very well done. Do they manage to get it together at the end, and save the life of the Emperor to boot? Why not read the book and find out?
Because Burgis writes mainly for middle grade readers, her style is very straightforward and easy to read. However, this book most definitely addresses a variety of adult themes. I found it a very quick read, but thoroughly enjoyable.
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