#BookReview: The Witches of St. Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

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Inspired by real characters, this transporting historical fiction debut spins the fascinating story of two princesses in the Romanov court who practiced black magic, befriended the Tsarina, and invited Rasputin into their lives—forever changing the course of Russian history.

As daughters of the impoverished King of Montenegro, Militza and Stana must fulfill their duty to their father and leave their beloved home for St. Petersburg to be married into senior positions in the Romanov court. For their new alliances to the Russian nobility will help secure the future of the sisters’ native country. Immediately, Militza and Stana feel like outcasts as the aristocracy shuns them for their provincial ways and for dabbling in the occult. Undeterred, the sisters become resolved to make their mark by falling in with the lonely, depressed Tsarina Alexandra, who—as an Anglo-German—is also an outsider and is not fully accepted by members of the court. After numerous failed attempts to precipitate the birth of a son and heir, the Tsarina is desperate and decides to place her faith in the sisters’ expertise with black magic.

Promising the Tsarina that they will be able to secure an heir for the Russian dynasty, Militza and Stana hold séances and experiment with rituals and spells. Gurus, clairvoyants, holy fools, and charlatans all try their luck. The closer they become to the Tsarina and the royal family, the more their status—and power—is elevated. But when the sisters invoke a spiritual shaman, who goes by the name of Rasputin, the die is cast. For they have not only irrevocably sealed their own fates—but also that of Russia itself.

Brimming with black magic, sex and intrigue, The Witches of St. Petersburg is an exquisite historical fiction debut novel filled with lush historical details from the Romanov era.

Fair warning folks, Imogen Edwards-Jones’ The Witches of St. Petersburg is not appropriate for those with weak constitutions and before anyone asks, the answer is no, that statement has absolutely nothing to do Rasputin’s gherkin-scented breath or wart-tipped phallus.

The hard truth of the matter is that if you can’t stomach the prying of a half-developed chick from its egg, the disintegration of a miscarried fetus as part of a summoning spell, or the idea of Alexandra Feodorovna dropping to her knees to scoop up and eat vomit from the snow-covered ground, this book isn’t for you.

Genre readers who get frustrated when significant liberties are taken with the source material might want to think twice here too. A date change is one thing, but pitching Suzanna Catharina de Graaff’s claim as fact is a bit of a stretch. An interesting and arguably creative stretch, but a stretch just the same.

At four hundred and sixty-four pages, The Witches of St. Petersburg is an absolute beast! The pacing is also slow and I had a tough time with the characters. I don’t mean that I hated them or anything. I just couldn’t understand them or their motivations. Were they selfish social climbers or self-sacrificing Montenegrin royalty? The novel vacillates back and forth, but the lack of clarity made it impossible for me to appreciate what either sister was about.

There’s some interesting content in this piece and I think the author flirts with some very interesting concepts, but the execution was all over the place. Complex stories are great, but they need to translate and I can’t say I felt this one succeeded on that front.

Not for me and not something I’d have an easy time recommending forward.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: September 25, 2018

She couldn't help thinking how cruel it was to be born a woman, how cruel is was to be powerless and unable to decide one's own fate...



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