book review, historical fiction, history

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

The Witches of St. Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones tells the true story of Princesses Militza and Stana of Montenegro and their marriages into the Russian Imperial Family at the turn of the century. Coming from a small, “backwater” country, the sisters are immediately shunned by the Russian nobility in St. Petersburg. They call them “Goat Girls,” “The Black Sisters,” “The Black Spiders,” and “The Black Peril.” In order to strengthen their own standing at the Imperial court of Tsar Nicholas II, as well as increase aid given to Montenegro from Russia, the sisters soon devise plans to work their way into the Imperial inner circle.

I was not previously aware of Militza and Stana, much less their alleged practice in the occult that the women fashioned as a kind of Martinism, or a type of Christian mysticism. The author plays off this nugget of historical detail by portraying Militza as a type of psychic, tarot-card reader, occultist, medium, mystic-extraordinare. Stana is a bit as well, as it seems these superstitions come from their home country’s culture. The sisters begin attending dark salons in St. Petersburg, as the occult and seances are very much en vogue. And when the new Tsarina Alexandra arrives at the Imperial court, the sisters waste no time in working their way into her inner circle–only to become her most trusted friends and advisors. The paramount reason Alexandra keeps the sisters close is their ties with mystics who may be able to help her conceive a son and heir to the Russian Empire.

There are several attempts with different mystics, seers, wise-men…and then, enter Rasputin.

Like most, I knew about Rasputin and his contribution to the toppling of the Romanov family (directly or indirectly), but I had no idea that Militza and Stana were the ones who found him and introduced him to the Tsarina. I am not sure of the historical details, but Jones paints Rasputin as having been conjured or summoned by the sisters via a spell.

The sisters’ favor with the Tsarina swiftly dwindles as Rasputin’s rises. From here, the story very much focuses on the the idea of, be careful what you wish for, as well as facing and defeating a monster of one’s own making. The very thing that helped them gain favor and prestige at court is the very thing that tears them down, and so the sisters must ultiamtely face the consequences.

The Witches of St. Petersburg is not for the squeamish, or for those easily offended by the occult or sexually graphic scenes. I found the historical aspect interesting, especially the sisters from Montenegro, however, I did not feel that the writing style was particularly stellar. What’s more, there were large time jumps between chapters that sometimes left the reader confused as to context. There was also a lot of close third person head-hopping within the same chapter, as well as a sometimes omniscient narration that read like a non-fiction piece.

Grade: B-


The Witches of St. Petersburg will be released in the US on January 22, 2019