Review: The Mirrored World

I received this book for free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Mirrored WorldThe Mirrored World by Debra Dean
Published by Harper on August 28, 2012
Genres: Historical
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
Source: TLC Book Tours
Goodreads
two-half-stars

The bestselling author of The Madonnas of Leningrad returns with a breathtaking novel of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagant royal court of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

Born to a Russian family of lower nobility, Xenia, an eccentric dreamer who cares little for social conventions, falls in love with Andrei, a charismatic soldier and singer in the Empress's Imperial choir. Though husband and wife adore each other, their happiness is overshadowed by the absurd demands of life at the royal court and by Xenia's growing obsession with having a child—a desperate need that is at last fulfilled with the birth of her daughter. But then a tragic vision comes true, and a shattered Xenia descends into grief, undergoing a profound transformation that alters the course of her life. Turning away from family and friends, she begins giving all her money and possessions to the poor. Then, one day, she mysteriously vanishes.

Years later, dressed in the tatters of her husband's military uniform and answering only to his name, Xenia is discovered tending the paupers of St. Petersburg's slums. Revered as a soothsayer and a blessed healer to the downtrodden, she is feared by the royal court and its new Empress, Catherine, who perceives her deeds as a rebuke to their lavish excesses. In this evocative and elegantly written tale, Dean reimagines the intriguing life of Xenia of St. Petersburg, a patron saint of her city and one of Russia's most mysterious and beloved holy figures. This is an exploration of the blessings of loyal friendship, the limits of reason, and the true costs of loving deeply.

First Sentence: “Yes, this was her house many years ago, when she was still Xenia.”

Review:
I suspect this shall be one of those reviews that sounds like I didn’t like the book, but I did for the most part, so make note of that. Debra Dean writes beautifully, and I never found my attention waning from The Mirrored World. However, the story really lacked any sort of emotional impact or connection, largely because of the over-brisk pacing and dull main character.

Let me start, however, with what kept The Mirrored World a positive read for me. For one thing, I am hugely into anything about Russia or the Soviet Union, thus my interest in Dean’s novel. There’s something about Russia I find so captivating, and I suspect that has to do with the wide divide between the serfs and the upper classes. The pomposity of the events and the exhibitionism of the tsars and tsarinas is astounding. Dean delves into the excesses of the reins of Elizabeth, Peter III, and Catherine the Great. Throughout are such historical goodies as a party where Elizabeth ordered everyone to crossdress or the way she married off people for her own entertainment. I was definitely in it for the historical pageantry, and that was enough to get me through.

Unfortunately, the pace moves so quickly through time that much of history is glossed over, like watching decades of Russian history pass by from a bullet train. The Mirrored World clocks in at just over 200 pages, and it could have been much longer. In those pages, Dean takes Dasha from a child to an old woman, which gives you a sense of how quickly the pace goes. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but this novel is not a humorous one and meaning was obscured in the rush to the finish.

Dasha, however, is the biggest obstacle. She has almost no personality, and is more an observer of the people around her than anything. Of course, the people around her are interesting, but I kept expecting their to be a purpose to her, for her to learn something or do something in the course of the narrative, but she only ever reflected the values of those around her, particularly Xenia, though for a while she reflects her eunuch husband, who was definitely my favorite character.

More than anything, The Mirrored World is a tale of Dasha mirroring Xenia’s life. She follows the lively Xenia everywhere, going to live with Xenia and her husband after the marriage. When Xenia tells Dasha to wed Gaspari, Dasha does. As Xenia becomes a holy fool, Dasha turns more and more to charity, even with the prospect of bankrupting herself in the process, as Xenia did before her. Their dynamic baffled me, and is perhaps a bit alien to our culture.

While a prettily-written novel, The Mirrored World failed to captivate me, skimming on the surface of history, rather than really diving in to where the feelings and the meaning reside. I liked it, but couldn’t help comparing it to another book I enjoyed more set in the exact same time period, The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. By no means will this experience with Debra Dean be my last, but I do hope for a bit more from The Madonnas of Leningrad.

Favorite Quote:

“Whatever we know as children, this is the world, eaten whole and without question.”

14 responses to “Review: The Mirrored World”

  1. Audra says:

    Great review — I liked this one immediately upon reviewing it, but now, some X months later, I’ve completely forgotten everything about it. If I didn’t recognize the cover, I might even have thought I hadn’t read it! I think you’re right about the briskness lending a sense of … I don’t know, lack of oomph.

    • Christina says:

      Oh yeah, I don’t think this one’s going to stick with me in the slightest. It’s pretty but there’s not really much to it. I feel like less of her life but with more depth would have had more of an impact.

  2. To bad this one zoomed too fast for you. I can definitely understand how the quickness and therefore lack of depth can hinder your connection to the novel. I’m sure you know this isn’t one that I would read but I am happy that despite the 2.5 you did enjoy reading it!

    • Christina says:

      Yup, I like to delve down into the characters and chill there. You never really get to know anyone because it’s so speedy. Most of it was enjoyable, but it was a steady downhill slide.

  3. heathertlc says:

    I’m sorry this one didn’t turn out to be a favorite for you, especially since there were things that you really did like. Thanks for being on the tour.

    • Christina says:

      I’m sad too, but it happens. It certainly wasn’t a terrible read by any means, and I might recommend it to a particular subset of readers, but I was left wanting more.

  4. Amy says:

    It’s really hard for me to really like a book if the characters aren’t developed really well. I don’t even need to like them, but they just need to feel like real people. I also don’t like when things seem to be rushed through. I’m glad that you still enjoyed reading it, even if in the end it wasn’t quite what you wanted.

  5. GillyB says:

    I loooove Tsarist Russia and books set in that time period. Shame about the drawbacks of this one, but I may check out that other book you mentioned, The Winter Palace. I just need more Russian books in my life.

  6. “I suspect this shall be one of those reviews that sounds like I didn’t like the book, but I did for the most part, so make note of that.” < -- I should follow your lead with this. I'm always guilty of giving more weight in reviews to negative aspects over positive ones, even when I love the book. “There’s something about Russia I find so captivating, and I suspect that has to do with the wide divide between the serfs and the upper classes.”
    Yes. And now you are sort of reminding me of Shadow & Bone/Grisha world though they aren’t really the same….

    “Throughout are such historical goodies as a party where Elizabeth ordered everyone to crossdress or the way she married off people for her own entertainment. I was definitely in it for the historical pageantry, and that was enough to get me through.”
    What?!? Lol, she ordered everyone to crossdress? This is why historical fiction is so awesome. Reading about such great juicy tidbits that I never knew before lol (unless this is fictitious element in which case, still awesome for the creativity there.)

    “In those pages, Dean takes Dasha from a child to an old woman, which gives you a sense of how quickly the pace goes.”
    Is this like a day-in-the-life-of story? Or kind of like Atonement, with different parts set at different ages?

    The pretty writing makes me think that I should try something else of hers, and I hope you do enjoy the Madonnas book, if you go on to read more of the author’s work. Sorry that this one fell flat for you!

    • Christina says:

      I really do try to be as positive as possible, but, sometimes, most of the comments I have are negative, even if I didn’t dislike the book. What can you do?

      Ahhh, well, the Grisha world IS inspired by Russia, so that does make some sense.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. That tsarina was BONKERS.

      Different parts at different ages. It sort of jumps and shows a little bit here and there.

      I will, since I already own Madonnas. I hope I do like it more.

  7. Christina, you should try Deathless by Catherynne M.Valente and The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova – both are fascinating in terms of Russian culture and mentality. Fab review, I’ll keep this book on the back burner. At least I know what to expect now.

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