“The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean

It is a peasant belief that, as we are all equal in God’s eyes, He must surely confer on fools unseen, compensatory gifts.  And so our peasants attend fools with great reverence and scrutinize their gibbering for veiled wisdom and prophecy.  Even the more enlightened prefer them in their charity over the ordinary poor.  For this reason, the streets are thick with counterfeit fools who don chains and profit by feigning madness.  The credulous lump all these together and call them the blessed ones.  Because I have known Xenia as she was–bequeathed every wordly advantage of wit, modesty, and riches–I know she is not a pretender.

I received a review copy of “The Mirrored World” while at Book Expo America, and I had the opportunity to meet with the author.  This book is a perfect fit for me, as I am a bit obsessed with Russia.  The book is scheduled to be released this August.

“The Mirrored World” is a novel by Debra Dean, who also wrote “The Madonnas of Leningrad.”  It tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who lived in the 18th century and was famous for her charity to the poor.

The story is told from the point of view of Dasha, Xenia’s cousin.  The girls grow up in the same household and are introduced to Petersburg society at the same time.  Xenia falls in love with Col. Andrei Petrov and marries him, but then a tragedy strikes and she begins her descent into madness.

The “holy fool” is a theme that is often found in Russian literature, because they are believed to be God’s chosen children.  Even the tsar can’t speak against them, and it is believed that their words contain wisdom.  It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Xenia go from a respectable woman of society to a holy fool who lives among the beggars, but at the same time we see that her transformation brings her a sense of peace and happiness that Dasha envies.

Dasha makes a perfect narrator because she is able to grow up in society but then drift on its outskirts.  She is able to observe, but is still independent enough that she can have an impartial view of what’s going on, both politically and in her relationship with Xenia.  I particularly enjoyed Dasha’s choice of husband (Spoiler:  He’s a eunuch).

Debra Dean’s writing contains a great deal of historical detail.  I was impressed by her knowledge of Russian history and culture.  One such detail that stood out to me (and which I researched later out of curiosity) was that tea wasn’t widespread in Russia until the 1730s when Catherine the Great began regularly importing it.  This story takes place before that, and so tea is treated as something special for rare occasions.

I also enjoyed the way that Debra Dean highlighted the excesses and corruption found at the Petersburg court.  Events such as the forced marriage of a jester show a lack of concern for the feelings of the common people, and we even get hints of Catherine becoming a slutty monarch as she takes the throne (note:  this is also historically accurate).

While parts of the story are sad, I didn’t find it depressing.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Russian history and culture, or for fans of historical fiction in general.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on ““The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean

  1. Pingback: The Mirrored World by Debra Dean | The Book Worm's Library

  2. I have been meaning to read The Madonnas of Leningrad for ages but just hasn’t happened… I am glad this one is good, too! Now to read her…

  3. Those are great opening lines! I feel like I haven’t read much about Russian history that wasn’t related to Anastasia, Lenin or Stalin, so this could be interesting…

    • Same here. Most of the courses I took on Russian history started with the Romanovs, so there are still big gaps in my knowledge of what happened before that. It was neat to read something set in an earlier time period.

  4. I am so excited for this book to come out, I love historical fiction and like you I like books set in Russia. The religious element sounds interesting too.

  5. I am certainly interested in reading this book, not only because Xenia of Petersburg is a revered saint of the Russian Orthodox church and a healer, but also because my curiousity is piqued at how the author approaches the subject of spirituality and madness given quite complex historical and cultural context of the Russian society at that time.

    • She certainly did a good job of it! I think she managed to strike the perfect balance between Xenia’s religion and mental health. 🙂

  6. Slutty monarch–lol. I don’t think I would have stayed faithful to Peter either. I should read this book. One of my questions to obtain my MA in history was about Catherine and whether she was really an enlightened despot. However, that was many years ago so I know I’ve forgotten many of the details about her life and rule.

    • Catherine is such a great background character, and it was interesting to be able to read about her coming into power. 🙂

      I’d like to learn more about Catherine… most of my Russian history knowledge starts in the mid-1800s, so it was cool to read a book that had an earlier setting.

      • I haven’t read a recent bio on her, but I read Massey’s back in the day and enjoyed it. Be warned though, it is older so there is probably (hopefully) newer research and theories.

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