The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

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.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it almost exactly a year ago and I remember my excitement on discovering that it was actually the first in a planned trilogy. We haven’t had to wait too long for the second book, The Girl in the Tower, and I’m pleased to say that I loved it even more than the first.

Katherine Arden’s books are a wonderful mixture of history, folklore and fairytales with an atmospheric and wintry Russian setting. If you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale yet, I would highly recommend starting with that one – and I should warn you that there may be spoilers for the first book in the rest of this post.

At the beginning of The Girl in the Tower, our heroine Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya) is fleeing her childhood village of Lesnaya Zemlya. Despite her efforts to rescue the villagers from a great evil, the way in which her father and stepmother died has caused Vasya to be branded a witch, regarded with suspicion and distrust. Accompanied by her magnificent stallion Solovey, Vasya sets off on a journey across northern Rus’ to Moscow, home of her sister Olga – a journey which will be filled with danger as Vasya encounters a group of bandits sweeping across the countryside burning villages and kidnapping children. First, though, she must pay a visit to Morozko, the frost-demon, in his fir-grove deep in the forest…

This novel has a much wider geographical scope than the previous one, in which the action takes place almost entirely in and around Lesnaya Zemlya. I liked this aspect of the book; medieval Moscow is an interesting setting and, with Olga’s family close to the Grand Prince, Dmitrii Ivanovich, we are given some insights into the political situation during this period of Russian history. At the time of the story, the Rus’, as it was known then, is still part of the domain of the Great Khan and the Golden Horde, but with their influence weakening as the Grand Prince grows in power, it seems that things could be about to change.

I was also pleased to see Vasya reunited with her siblings, not just Olga but also their brother Sasha, who is now a priest. Sadly, her relationships with both Olga and Sasha are very strained, partly because of what happened in Lesnaya Zemlya, for which Vasya is unable to give an adequate explanation, and also because of her behaviour on arriving in Moscow, which they consider unladylike and inappropriate. To the modern reader, Vasya is a wonderful character – brave, independent and rebellious – but her refusal to conform to the 14th century ideal of what a woman should be leads her into a great deal of trouble. In contrast, Olga has accepted her place in society and expects her young daughter, Marya, to follow the same course in life. Marya, though, appears to have other ideas!

I’ve said very little so far about the fantasy elements of the novel. We don’t see very much of the household spirits who played such an important part in The Bear and the Nightingale, but there are some appearances by intriguing new figures from Russian myth including the Firebird – and another, more sinister, character whose name I won’t give here so as not to spoil anything! I also enjoyed Vasya’s interactions with her magical horse, Solovey, who has begun to form a personality of his own. Last, but certainly not least, there’s Morozko, frost-demon and god of the dead.

There were hints in the previous book of a possible romance between Vasya and Morozko, and in this book their relationship is developed further. It’s definitely not a conventional love story and because of who Morozko is and the role he has to play in Russian folklore, he has a tendency to come and go throughout the novel. It’s frustrating but it worked for me and I found myself looking forward to the scenes they shared. I loved The Girl in the Tower – and the good news is that the third book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, is expected this August!

Thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing the word ‘the’ used twice.

Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is the third in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow trilogy. I have read the second one, One Night in Winter, but not the first, Sashenka; the books are only loosely connected and it’s not essential to read all three in order. Montefiore is better known as a historian and writer of non-fiction, but these three books are fictional – although based on real events from Russian history.

Red Sky at Noon tells the story of Benya Golden, a Jewish writer and former teacher who, in 1940, is given the death sentence for “terrorism, conspiracy to murder Comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Satinov, and membership of a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite group”. At the last minute Benya is given a reprieve and instead of being executed he is exiled to the Gulag of Kolyma and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in the gold mines. Life in the camp is harsh and miserable, so when a chance comes two years later to join a penal battalion (a shtrafbat) formed to fight the Germans, Benya is quick to volunteer. The reward will be the opportunity to win redemption by the shedding of blood – either his own or the enemy’s.

The rest of the novel follows the adventures of Benya, his beloved horse Silver Socks and the assorted group of murderers, Cossack gangsters and fellow political prisoners who fight alongside him in the Soviet cavalry. Together they undertake dangerous missions behind enemy lines, facing death, capture or betrayal – or all three – and for Benya, there is also a romance when he meets a widowed Italian nurse, Fabiana. Of course, with Russia and Italy on opposite sides of the war, it’s clear from the beginning that their love affair is unlikely to run smoothly.

With so much happening and with such an action-packed plot and interesting historical setting, this could have been a wonderful novel, filled with drama, romance and excitement. However, I think Montefiore is probably a better historian than he is a novelist; although I have no doubts that he knows his Russian history, he never quite managed to bring the characters and events in this novel to life. The dialogue didn’t feel entirely convincing and there were only a few moments in the whole book when I felt any real emotional connection to Benya or the other characters, despite the horrors of war that were being described. I remember having similar thoughts about One Night in Winter, which was a more enjoyable novel in my opinion, but another one which made little emotional impact.

I haven’t mentioned yet that there is another thread to the novel, involving Svetlana Stalina. As Stalin’s daughter, sixteen-year-old Svetlana is a lonely and isolated figure, who has experienced little in the way of love and friendship as people are afraid to get too close because of who her father is. Svetlana’s story doesn’t really have anything to do with Benya’s, but it offers insights into life in the Stalin household and does add another layer to the novel.

I’m not sure if I would want to read more of Montefiore’s fiction – although Sashenka does still sound tempting – but I’m curious to know what his non-fiction is like. Has anyone read any of it?

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is one of my final reads from my Classics Club list and, I have to admit, it wasn’t one that I was looking forward to, having had at least two previous attempts to read it. I did read The Idiot a few years ago (also for the Classics Club) and got on much better with that one, so I was prepared to give Crime and Punishment another chance. I’m glad I did, because I managed to get to the end this time and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, follows the actions and thought processes of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished former student living in St Petersburg. In the first chapter we learn that Raskolnikov is planning the murder of an elderly pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, a crime he proceeds to carry out, although it doesn’t go entirely according to plan. At this stage his motives are not completely clear, but it seems that he is simply in need of money: he is struggling to pay the rent, can’t afford to continue with his studies and has discovered that his sister is about to marry a man she doesn’t love for his money.

Nothing in a Dostoevsky novel is simple, however, and other motives soon begin to emerge. At one point Raskolnikov states that the old woman he has killed is just a ‘louse’ and of no use to society. He also explains that he believes in the theory that there are some people who are superior to others and have the right to commit serious crimes such as murder. He considers Napoleon to be one example of such a person and he is keen to test the theory out for himself. Are some men really so great that the law doesn’t apply to them and that they have no need to worry about the consequences of their actions because by committing murder they will have proved their greatness?

Of course, Raskolnikov does not escape the consequences and from the moment he kills the pawnbroker, his emotions are thrown into turmoil. Although he gets away from the scene of the crime presumably undetected, he obsesses over every detail of the murder, becoming feverish and causing his family and friends – who know nothing of what he has done – to worry about him. Despite taking some steps to cover his traces and remove the evidence, there are times when he seems to want to be discovered and goes out of his way to make himself appear suspicious. He becomes more and more tormented as the novel progresses and as Dostoevsky allows us to access Raskolnikov’s innermost thoughts, this is not the most comfortable or pleasant of reads! You wouldn’t really expect a book with the title Crime and Punishment to be comfortable and pleasant, though, would you?

The crime part of the novel is obvious enough, but the punishment takes more than one form. First, there is Raskolnikov’s psychological disarray in the days following the murder, which is a punishment in itself, but there is also the question of whether or not his crime will eventually be found out and he will receive punishment of a different kind. I won’t spoil things by telling you whether he is discovered, betrayed, confesses or escapes justice forever, because once the detective Porfiry Petrovitch gets involved, there is a certain element of suspense which I’m sure you would rather experience for yourself.

Although I don’t think I would describe this book as “one of the most readable novels ever written” as stated on the cover of my edition, once I got into it I found it very compelling and a quicker read than I’d expected it to be. I’m so pleased I gave it another try and that I persevered past Raskolnikov’s nightmare about a horse being thrashed to death, which was where I stopped on my last attempt. And of course, the horse dream, horrible as it may be, is in the story for a reason and its significance starts to become clear later on. I won’t pretend that I fully understood everything that happens in the book, but I can always read it again one day – after I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, which I think is going to be one of the titles on the second list I put together for the Classics Club.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

a-gentleman-in-moscowIn 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal and found guilty of the crime of being an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’.  Once a recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt, the Count is now considered a Former Person and is sentenced to live out the rest of his days under house arrest in his current place of residence, Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.  Forced to leave his luxury suite and move his possessions to a tiny room in the attic, the Count refuses to let his spirit be broken and decides to make the best of his situation, continuing with his daily routines as far as he is able without leaving the building.

With the help of Nina, a nine-year-old girl in a yellow dress, the Count explores the hidden corridors, rooms and staircases of this magnificent old building, and later he finds some fulfilment in working as a waiter at the hotel’s grandest restaurant, the Boyarsky.  Although it’s never nice to lose one’s freedom, there are certainly worse places to be held prisoner than the Metropol Hotel.  But what truly sustains the Count as the years and decades go by are the friendships he forms with the other hotel employees, guests and visitors.

The Count develops a close bond with Emile and Andrey, the two men who work alongside him in the restaurant, he embarks on a romance with a glamorous actress, comes to value the help and advice of the hotel seamstress, and debates politics, poetry and philosophy with friends old and new.  But the most moving of his relationships, in my opinion, is the one with Sofia, who comes to the Metropol as a child and grows to think of the Count as a father.  The Count is an educated, cultured, intelligent man, but he also has a good imagination and a playful sense of humour and I loved watching as he and Sofia devised their own games to entertain themselves and help pass the time.

Spending most of his adult life under house arrest, the Count is largely insulated from whatever is happening in the outside world, but through the people who pass in and out of his life he is able to keep up with current affairs.  This allows the author to provide the reader with some commentary on Soviet-era Russia and to put the Count’s story into historical context.  The balance between the political and the personal is about right and despite the length of the book, I was never bored.

I had been looking forward to reading A Gentleman in Moscow since seeing it appear on several people’s best-of-year lists at the end of 2016.  Now that I’ve had the chance to read it for myself, I can understand all the praise that has been bestowed on it and although I don’t think I would describe it as an absolute favourite, I did find it a lovely, enjoyable story.  I loved getting to know the Count and I’m sure that if you choose to read this book you’ll love him too.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale I was drawn to this book first by the cover – and then by the mention of Russian fairy tales and folklore. It seemed a little bit different from the usual books I read and I hoped it would prove to be an enchanting, magical read, perfect for the winter months.

The story is set in the 14th century in Lesnaya Zemlya, a village in northern Rus’.  The village is home to Pyotr Vladimirovich who, since losing his beloved wife in childbirth several years earlier, has lived alone with his five children and their elderly nurse, Dunya. The youngest child, Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known), is becoming wild and rebellious and it is partly because of the need to provide a mother figure for her that Pyotr decides to marry again. Unfortunately, though, his new wife – Anna – turns out to be a wicked stepmother who dislikes and distrusts Vasya and believes she can see demons hiding all over the house.

Vasya, who has inherited special abilities from her mother, can also see Anna’s ‘demons’, but she knows that they are not evil spirits – they are household guardians watching over the people of Lesnaya Zemlya. When Father Konstantin arrives in the village, believing he is on a mission from God to stamp out the old traditions and beliefs, the powers of the household spirits begin to fade. Harvests start to fail, winters seem colder and harder than ever before and the evil forces that lurk in the forest grow stronger. Can Vasya find a way to protect her family and restore happiness and prosperity to the village?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a story steeped in Russian myth, legend and fairy tale. Although I loved fairy tales as a child, I seem to have missed out on most of the Russian ones, but that wasn’t a problem at all – and I was surprised to discover how much I was actually familiar with. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the story of Frost which Dunya is telling the children as the novel opens:

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows.”

Frost, or Morozko to give him his Russian name, is an important presence throughout the whole novel, although he only appears to the characters on a few occasions and we are made to wait until near the end of the book before his true significance becomes clear. Other aspects of the story are slow to unfold too – such as the role of the Bear and Nightingale of the title – which is why I’m not going to say any more about the plot or the characters, even though I would love to! I would prefer to leave some of the novel’s secrets and surprises for you to discover for yourself.

What I will mention is the setting, which I loved. Most of the action takes place in and around Vasya’s village, with lots of vivid descriptions of the harsh living conditions and the bleak, relentless winter weather, but there are also a few sections set in Moscow at the court of the Grand Prince Ivan II. I have very little knowledge of 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as the region was known at that time) so I wasn’t sure how much of this was based on fact, but as this is historical fantasy I tried not to worry too much about that.  I was more interested in the portrayal of the conflict between the old ways and the new, the changing beliefs of the people and the loss of old traditions.

The Bear and the Nightingale is apparently the first in a trilogy – I hadn’t been aware of this when I first started to read, but on reaching the end of the book I was happy to discover that there will be another two and that the next one will take us away from the forests of Rus’ and into medieval Moscow. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for it as I’m looking forward to it already!

Thanks to the publisher Del Rey for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.