27 July 2012

The Mirrored World; Debra Dean

The Mirrored WorldThe Mirrored World by Debra Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Prior to reading this, I knew nothing about St. Xenia (she's not a "character" in Massie's Catherine the Great), so this was my introduction to her.

As historical fiction goes, this is well done. There are enough elements to set the time and place, while the political scene is touched on lightly, with references to the King of Sweden and other foreign rulers to reinforce the timing. Because this was an ARC, I don't know if there will be more information included about the succession - it got confusing as to who ruled when (we start with Empress Anna and end with Catherine, having gone through Elizabeth and - briefly Emperor Peter II).

At first we're in the sweep of the court life, with Xenia and Daria (her cousin, through whose eyes we see the events) attending balls in order to attract husbands. Xenia marries a singer, her "nightingale", and has problems conceiving. She eventually does give birth but within a few months the daughter dies, throwing Xenia into a depression. This depression only worsens when her husband dies in a freak accident, hitting his head on some steps. She emerges from her semi-catatonic state to start playing the role of "holy fool", giving everything - even, literally, the clothes off her back - to the poor of St. Petersburg, and developing a reputation for healing and prophecy.

The role of "holy fool" in Russian Orthodox life is not going to be that easy for those unfamiliar with the religion to understand. Likewise the role of serfs in the daily life of upper class Russians. Little Russia is mentioned, but I didn't know it was Ukraine until I looked it up. And then there's Gaspari, clearly a castrati but not named as such (he's called a musico, which may not have the same meaning to readers). Again, these things may be covered in additional material in the final book.

What will stay with me is the overwhelming sense of loss that Xenia feels, and how that loss turns to a holy madness.

ARC provided by publisher.

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