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.
12 thoughts on “The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones”
Did Militza and Stana actually exist, then? I just assumed that they were fictional characters.
Yes, they were real people, although I hadn’t heard of them until I read this book.
Huh. Hard to know if they thought they were witches or not, although obviously Alexandra believed in a lot of mystic stuff, which was also popular at that time.
I read a little about them during my Russian reading and there was no suggestion of them being witches, although they did seem to have a lot of influence over the Tsarina. You might be happy to know that the biography of Rasputin I read also disputes that he was dirty and revolting – the biographer reckoned it was Fake News put about by Rasputin’s enemies…
I had never heard of Stana and Militza before, but I haven’t read as much about Russia as you have. As for Rasputin, I can accept that a lot of the revolting things the author attributes to him were based on fact, but I could have done without all the graphic descriptions!
Hm. I have probably only read one novel featuring Rasputin and I don’t remember what it was. He is an historical character that interests me. I think I will put this on my lists just so I don’t forget it exists. I liked your balanced review.
I think the only other book I’ve read featuring Rasputin was Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett. I can’t remember much about it now, but it was a more positive portrayal than this one.
What a shame this was not the hit you were hoping for. Like you, I would have picked this up because of the title alone, but am now not so sure having read your post.
Well, you might enjoy it more than I did. I had a few problems with it but I thought it was worth reading overall.
I have ordered it from the library so we shall see! 🙂
If you are interested further in the Romanovs and Rasputin, you can read (if you haven’t) Rasputin’s Daughter and The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander. The first is mostly about Rasputin’s troubled effect on the Romanovs, and what may have precipitated his demise. The second is a fictional account of the last months of the Tsar family while they were imprisoned by the Bolcheviks while awaiting their execution. Both are wonderful and relatively short.
Thanks, Carmen. I haven’t read either of those and they both sound like books I would be interested in reading.