FICTION//The Witches of St Petersburg- Imogen Edwards-Jones*

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When two princesses from a minor royal house in Montenegro arrive in pre-Revolutionary Russia they land in a court riddled with intrigue, petty jealousies and desperation. With their knowledge of the occult, the sisters use their powers to help the tsarina in her quest to conceive a son- but by introducing her to a series of ‘gurus’ and eventually the scruffy Siberian priest called Rasputin, they risk everything.

Based on the real-life story of Grand Duchess Militza Nikolaevna  and her sister Anastasia, it’s a novel that covers their lives from their early days in Russia to their lives post-Revolution and explores the dynamics of power given to women and just what people will do in order to climb the social ladder. The sisters must tread carefully in a country that does not welcome them and that suspects them at every turn; as outsiders (referred to as ‘goat girls’ and ‘the Black Peril’ by those at court), they seem natural allies for a desperate Tsarina who is mistrusted by her subjects and disliked by the aristocracy.

I have read a fair bit about Tsar Nicholas’ court and had never heard of these two- but it seems there were rumours about their occult activities, which were fashionable in the last days of the Russian empire. They did indeed introduce Alexandra to Rasputin (who seems really, really gross, whether I read about him in fiction or biography.)

Although it does sometimes veer into fantasy territory, I enjoyed the mixture of fact and fiction. As well as the magical realism, we’re also shown their everyday lives: their relationships with their husbands; the dullness of living in a gilded cage; their lack of awareness of the unrest in the country around them as they become obsessed with maintaining the tsarina’s happiness- and, so, their position in court.

It’s an interesting look at a time and place in history that’s usually very male-dominated, despite the fact that the tsarina held such sway over the court. Despite knowing the fate of most of the characters, I kept reading, my attention held by the fascinating sisters at the centre of the narrative.

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