Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

I often find myself fascinated by novels set in Russia. Whether it be the terrible siege of Leningrad or the final days of the Romanov family, I find it so interesting. I remember thinking a few years ago that it was kind of surprising that there is so little set in the world of Catherine the Great. Over the last 12 months or so, I have read a couple of books with that setting which goes some way towards rectifying that oversight, but I suspect that just like the country itself, Russian history is so vast that it would be difficult to read something about all the different eras!

This book starts in the upper classes of the Russian aristocracy in the latter days of the reign of Empress Elizabeth in the mid 1700's and through the reign of Catherine the Great. Whilst the reader is exposed to some of the key historical events and culture of that time, really the story is much narrower than you might otherwise expect. While other authors might be tempted to fill the pages with what are undoubtedly fascinating details about the glamourous life of the upper classes, Dean is careful to provide the reader with just enough to colour the book, but not so much that the reader loses track of exactly what it is that this book is about.

The book opens with three young women who are about to make their debut into society. Nadya, Xenia and Dasha are on the lookout for husbands. For Nadya, there is marriage to a much older man, Dasha is left for all intent and purpose on the shelf, and for Xenia there is an all consuming love match with Colonel Andrei Feodorovich Petrov. We see Xenia fall in love and then deal with the disappointments and tragedy that life brings her way through the eyes of her cousin and companion Dasha.

It is those tragedies which push Xenia out of what is perceived to be normal for a lady of her class and time and that prompts her to begin the acts of charity that she in the end was known for, and which in due course lead to her canonisation as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Whilst I did enjoy this book by the end, there is a pacing issue in my opinion. The book started really slowly especially as the author matches Nadya and Xenia off with their respective spouses, leaving Dasha to find her match much later in life. We are given small glimpses into the gift of foresight that Xenia displays but even then it was really only once she took the definitive steps towards becoming the religious fool after the tragedies of her life that I felt as though I was thoroughly engaged in the story. Given that the book is actually quite short the fact that at least the first half of it is quite slow means that there isn't enough time and space for this reader to recover from that slow beginning.

While I do understand why it would have been quite difficult to have Xenia as our narrator through the 'fool' section, I do wonder if the book would have worked better if we had of had more insight into Xenia as the main character rather than viewing her through the eyes of a third party, in this case her cousin Nadya. There were also sections in the book where the focus shifted from Xenia to Nadya's own relationships which was an interesting choice on the part of the author.

I have no doubt that when the author comes out with her next book (hopefully still set in Russia) I will still be interested in reading it because Dean is a good writer. She has a lovely voice and turn of phrase. This book just didn't meet my admittedly high expectations.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for my copy of this book.

Rating 3.5/5

The critically acclaimed author of The Madonnas of Leningrad ("Elegant and poetic, the rare kind of book that you want to keep but you have to share" --Isabel Allende), Debra Dean returns with The Mirrored World, a breathtaking novel of love and madness set in 18th century Russia. Transporting readers to St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, Dean brilliantly reconstructs and reimagines the life of St. Xenia, one of Russia's most revered and mysterious holy figures, in a richly told and thought-provoking work of historical fiction that recounts the unlikely transformation of a young girl, a child of privilege, into a saint beloved by the poor.

If you are interested in reading this book, we are giving away a copy of it over at Historical Tapestry.

I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.


  1. I didn't read this entirely because I haven't read the book yet... This will be my first Dean. I have had her other book on my wish list for ages, but haven't read it... I will interested to see what I think.

  2. I read this and liked it but like you I wished it would have been told from Xenia's point of view. I think it would have made for a much more interesting book.

  3. I was pretty unwhelmed with this. Not bad, just nothing to write home about.

  4. The plot does sound good, though having just finished a book that was too slow I can understand your feelings toward the pacing. And it does sound as though it might've worked better with Xenia being the narrator.

  5. I am also fascinated by books set in Russia. I will add to my list. I am reading Shadow and Bone, while not set in Russia, the world she creates is certainly Russia like.

  6. I am reading this one soon for a tour, and I am rather excited about it. I love books set in Russia, but the slowness is something that could perhaps bother me. I am just going to have to find out for myself!

  7. I've only read one novel based in (contemporary) Russia this year and I was a bit disappointed by it. Although I like the fact that this is historical fiction and based on the life of St. Xenia, I am not entirely convinced whether this book would appeal to me... it seems your other commenters were not very impressed. Perhaps a good book to take home for library loot? :)

  8. I don't think i've really read any books set in Russia... it's a fascinating setting. This sounds like it was a little too slow and could have moved along a little faster, but still sounds like an interesting read.



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