I love reading about Russia, so the title of this novel alone was enough to attract my attention. When I discovered that it was set in the final years of the Romanov dynasty I was even more interested in reading it – it’s such an eventful period of history, yet most of my Russian reading has been set either earlier than that or later.
The novel opens in 1889 with the arrival in St Petersburg of two Montenegrin princesses. Militza and her younger sister Stana (Anastasia) are the daughters of the King of Montenegro and are being married off to members of Russia’s Imperial Court. Despite the high positions they now hold as a result of their marriages, the sisters are not fully accepted by the Russian courtiers who look down on them because of the smallness and perceived insignificance of their home country. They do make some friends, however, including the Tsarina Alexandra who, having given birth to four daughters, is now desperate to provide the Tsar with a son and heir.
Militza and Stana believe they may be able to help. With their knowledge of magic, their ability with spells and charms, and their skill at channelling spirits, they are what many people would call witches, but despite all of their efforts they are still unable to produce a son for the Tsarina and turn at last to a monk from Siberia by the name of Rasputin. Rasputin proves to be a sensation and the princesses are proud to have been responsible for his introduction to court – but when his influence with the Tsar and Tsarina begins to surpass their own, they start to wonder what they have done.
There were things that I liked about The Witches of St Petersburg and things that I didn’t like. I loved the setting as I’d hoped I would, and as I had never read about Militza and Stana before, I enjoyed getting to know them. Stana’s role in the novel is mainly confined to her marital problems – her husband Prince George Maximilianovich spends most of his time in Biarritz with his mistress and Stana longs for a divorce – but Militza is an interesting character and the one who drives the story forward, working to raise the sisters’ profile at court and to get close to the Tsarina. As a ‘witch’, she is also the more powerful of the two, conducting séances and speaking to the dead. The magical aspects of the book confused me, though; I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to believe that Militza really did have magical powers and really was a witch or whether it was all just a pretence.
The first half of the novel felt too long and repetitive – there were only so many times I wanted to read about the sisters being snubbed at parties and taunted for their provincial background and ‘smelling of goat’ – and I wondered when Rasputin was going to arrive on the scene and liven things up. His first appearance doesn’t come until halfway through the book and the story does become more compelling after that, as Militza and Stana begin to regret their role in bringing him to St Petersburg and wonder how they can get rid of him. However, this is a particularly repulsive portrayal of Rasputin! Some of it may be realistic, but I wished there wasn’t so much graphic detail on how dirty and revolting he was. This is not really a book for the squeamish.
I had a mixture of feelings about The Witches of St Petersburg, then, but overall my interest in the Russian history and in two women I had previously known nothing about was enough to make me keep reading.
Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.