Sometimes books just call to you. I already had more-than-sufficient books to read when this little gem hollered at me from my local library's new fiction shelves. This novel is based on historic facts about real people. A fictional approach is probably the only way it could have been written because it requires imagination to fill in the details, emotions and motivations that make the story coherent. This re-telling flips the careening tumbrel of the reign of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra on its head, yet somehow it makes sense. Historic records that exclude the feminine influence on unfolding events are invariable incomplete, like a car with three tires. The same phenomenon holds true about the involvement of women in the American Revolution, too; the men get all the credit, but they would have never managed to break free of Great Britain without their wives and daughter's support and influence.

The novel's chief protagonist is Grand Duchess Militza Nikolayevna, the second eldest daughter of King Nikola of Montenegro, who married Grand Duke Peter Nikolayevich, a cousin to Tsar Nicholas II. Militza's younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia, accompanied her to Russia and married George Maximilianovich, the sixth Duke of Leuchetenberg. Montenegro was a poor, feudal, backwards nation when King Nicola managed to arrange these marriages to highly-placed Russian nobles. It was the sisters' duty to ensure that financial and military aid from the Tsar flowed into their father's country. They had to overcome their humble origins, however, as other Russian aristocrats considered them little more than peasants.

The book's chapters are titled with event dates, and the narrative is chronological. It begins with Anastasia's ill-fated marriage to Duke George. Tragic events at the wedding settle dark clouds over the marriage. Stana demands that Militza promise to help her, and that help includes the use of dark old magic with the assistance of their childhood nurse Brana. The sisters were raised with magical traditions taught by their mother, and several of their rituals and superstitions are described in detail through the book, including tarot and other forms of divination.

Militza and Stana scramble to gain access to Tsarina Alexandra's confidence and friendship. This requires a great deal of social maneuvering aided by magic. Once the sisters arrive in the Tsarina's inner circle, it becomes imperative to help Alexandra conceive a son. The sisters create a powerful potion to ensure that this will come to pass. The sisters further ingratiate themselves by scouring St. Petersburg for mystics who can advise the emotionally distraught Alexandra. The sisters find the Martinist Philippe Nizier-Vachot (an associate of Papus from France). When Maitre Philippe has to leave Russia in a hurry, the sisters are desperate to find another guru for the Tsarina. Militza conducts an intense spell to draw a powerful holy man for the empress. Enter Rasputin!

Militza is unable to control Rasputin, and the sisters are soon expelled from Alexandra's inner circle. The Tsarina grows ever more extreme in her beliefs and actions after her son Alexei is born with hemophilia, and ever-more dependent on Rasputin to keep the child from death. The combination of Rasputin's influence on the royal family and World War I triggered the downfall of the Russian monarchy. Militza, Stana, their husbands and children all managed to survive the Russian Revolution by escaping with other aristocrats from the Crimea on the HMS Marlborough in April 1919. They resettled in the South of France, only to be uprooted once again during World War II. Grand Duchess Militza died in Alexandria, Egypt in September 1951, aged 85.

Edwards-Jones's book describes the opulence and decadence of aristocratic society in the final years of the Russian monarchy. The historic individuals at the center of social and political power are made distinct so the reader isn't confused by their Russian names and titles. A list of the book's major characters is provided at the front of the book. What's absolutely spooky is that the author heard about the Black Princesses in the early 1990s from a fellow journalist from Russia and spent years finding and collecting tiny facts about them. When the author visited the Yusupov Palace (where Prince Felix Yusupov and his co-conspirators fed Rasputin his final poisoned dinner and shot him to death before throwing his body in the Neva), there was a photograph of the sisters in the exhibit. Who knows? The Black Princesses, so called for their black eyes and hair as much as their predilection for black magic, may have been more instrumental in the arrival and death of Rasputin that anyone suspects. The book ends with Rasputin's assassination, and is followed by postscripts by the author providing an account of the sister’s lives after 1919, and another postscript detailing her process of research and discovery.

This is a wonderfully-written, compelling novel. It will be of interest to anyone who is drawn to lore about old Russian and Eastern European magical traditions, myths, and superstitions. Highly recommended!

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Imogen Edwards-Jones
2019, Harper/HarperCollins Publishers
440 pgs, $16.99 pb