The Witches of St. Petersburg: A Novel
- By Imogen Edwards-Jones
- Harper Paperbacks
- 480 pp.
- Reviewed by Janet A. Martin
- February 20, 2019
Sisters work their (black) magic during the waning days of tsarist Russia.
With swashbuckling fervor, journalist and author Imogen Edwards-Jones blends themes of power, magic, and sex in her new novel, The Witches of St. Petersburg, creating a florid portrait of the last decade of the Romanov era.
Two sisters from Montenegro, called the Black Princesses because of their black hair, black eyes, and black arts, marry into royalty and, through seances, herbs, and spells, weave their influence into court. There, Tsarina Alexandra gives birth to one disappointing baby girl after another in grim desperation to produce a son and heir to save the tsar and Russia itself.
The closer the sister-witches become to the tsarina, the more dependent she grows on their disingenuous ways, leaving her vulnerable to a wandering Siberian shaman, Rasputin, who is summoned by the witches for her comfort.
With bold and sometimes salacious scenes, the story unfolds over five years, from 1911 to 1916, during which time the author introduces the reader to the unimaginable wealth of a gold-threaded royal society in bejeweled gowns and diamond-studded tiaras, contrasted with the ragged, starving peasants and degraded middle-class struggling for power and influence over a doomed ruling court.
Her characters are vivid and her descriptions riveting, and her account of the end of the Romanovs evokes the gruesome tragedy that it was.
While history records the actions of Montenegrin Princesses Milica Petrović-Njegoš (also known as Grand Duchess Militza Nikolaevna) and Anastasia Petrović-Njegoš (who became Grand Duchess Anastasia “Stana” Nicholaievna Romanova), Edwards-Jones brings these sisters of the occult to the forefront as manipulative protagonists involved in the everyday affairs of the royal household, including their presence during the bleeding episodes of Alexei, the tsar’s hemophiliac son:
“Something had caught [Stana’s] eye, and she laughed and gestured for [Militza] to turn around. [Outside], the tsarina’s girls were playing on the [icy] terrace, sliding sideways…Then suddenly little Alexei joined in…He skidded, grinned, threw his arms in the air, and then slipped, crashing down on the terrace, landing on his forehead. [The tsarina] screamed and leapt off the divan…Militza ran after, Stana right behind. They ran toward the boy and snatched him off the ground. Immediately, blood poured out of the gash on his head…
“‘Do something!’ implored [the tsarina], turning to look at Militza. ‘Do something! He’s going to die!’”
At more than 400 pages, the narrative is a bit long, yet its color and vigor reflect the earnest interests and persistent research of the author, who calls herself an “honorary Cossack.” She has read Russian at Bristol University, studied at the London College of Psychic Studies, and traveled extensively throughout old and new Russia. And in The Witches of St. Petersburg, she has created a tantalizing historical tale.
Janet A. Martin is a writer living in Virginia. A history buff, she is the author of an unpublished work of historical fiction about women coming of age in the 1960s in the American South titled Catch the Wind. She is reachable at [email protected].