Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Book Review - Tasha Alexander's Death in St. Petersburg

Death in St. Petersburg by Tasha Alexander
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: October 10th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Emily is a little put out that her husband Colin keeps getting to go to Russia. Yes, it's for his work, yes, it's for the crown, but she longs to travel there herself. To stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, to gaze across the Neva, to attend a performance of the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, these are Emily's dreams. Luckily life has a way of working out. Just after Colin is called once again to St. Petersburg Emily's dear friend Cecile asks if Emily would like to accompany her to that same city to visit her dear friend Masha and take in the New Year's festivities. At first Emily is worried her harried husband will be displeased she has followed him to Russia, thankfully the warm welcome she receives on arriving makes her concerns disappear like a snowflake in front of a roaring blaze. Colin's busy schedule means he can only occasionally accompany his wife, but Emily and Cecile take in the sites of the city and are charmed by it's beauty until the night of the ballet. For the first time ever the prima ballerina assoluta Legnani isn't staring in Swan Lake and has chosen Irina Semenova Nemetseva as her successor. Only Nemetseva never finished her performance.

Ekaterina Petrovna, Nemetseva's understudy, finished the show and made everyone forget about the original ballerina, until they exited the theater and found Nemetseva's body face down in the snow. The blood spatter looked like rose petals around her corpse. Emily being Emily wants to get to the bottom of the crime but it's only when Prince Vasilii Ruslanovich approaches her that she is given a sanction to do so. Prince Vasilii was Nemetseva's secret lover. He doesn't want to draw any attention to this and therefore asks Emily to discreetly make inquiries. What Emily discovers is friends and lovers that admired Nemetseva. Ever her understudy, Ekaterina Petrovna, loved her like a sister and at one time hoped Nemetseva would marry her brother Lev so they would indeed be sisters. Lev though has some radical tendencies. Could the murder be politically motivated? One thing is sure, St. Petersburg loves to gossip and soon there is a development in Nemetseva's murder that has everyone talking. A ballerina keeps appearing throughout the city with a red silk scarf who disappears whenever anyone gets near. Could this be Nemetseva's ghost seeking justice? Emily doesn't believe in ghosts but she does believe in finding justice for the slain ballerina no matter what the cost.

Russia! Finally! I was almost as excited as Emily to find that we'd finally be going to St. Petersburg. Tasha had dropped enough hints in the previous volumes, even going so far as to have Emily state that were she to run away from all the chaos in her life during the events of A Terrible Beauty that she would go to St. Petersburg. Thankfully Colin was aware of this and would have followed her north. Now I know that Russia might not be everyone's cup of tea, or podstakannik as the case may be, but I was born and bred with a love of Russia in my bones thus making this book a perfect read for a long winter's night. My mother was actually a Russian major in college, a rather questionable major during the height of the cold war as evidenced by the fact the government kept tabs on her; but she adored Russian literature, in particular Pushkin, even if Tolstoy's War and Peace wins out as her favorite book. My parent's first date was going to see Doctor Zhivago at the Hilldale Theater, and the rest is history. From rather creepy Imperial Ballet paper dolls to oversized art books showing the treasures of the Hermitage to watching Gorbachev step down, my upbringing had Russia always present. I don't even know how young I was when I was sat down and forced to watch Doctor Zhivago, but I'm sure my parents didn't appreciate me rooting for Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya.

But for all my love of Russia I am very lukewarm on the whole Imperial Ballet. The truth is ballet is one of those things that you have to fall for very young. There are the horse girls, the ballet girls, the sporty girls, and then there was me. I didn't really fit or want to fit in any category. I have a vivid memory of going to the mall once with my mom and asking if I could buy some ballet shoes, because I thought they would be cool to wear. She said unless I took ballet that wasn't happening. My love of the shoes wasn't that great. But she also painted a very bleak picture of ballet, I'm not sure if that was from her Russian studies or from the fact she didn't want to drive me to lessons, but if I hadn't given up the dream of the shoes so easily I'm sure there would have been an even longer lecture. Ballet continues to be one of those artistic mediums I just don't connect to. It's not that I don't get what they are going for, for my theater degree we had to watch the Imperial Ballet to see the groundbreaking work they did in costume and stage design, but it never drew me in. I'm just not a fan of dance in any form. No matter how many shows I've seen I just don't get it.

Perhaps if I was lucky enough to have a mentor like Tasha did I wouldn't be indifferent. But I can't go back in time and change what happened. Thankfully Death in St. Petersburg works on many levels. I'm sure if you're a devotee of the ballet there is even more for you than if you're just in it for the human drama surrounding the ballerinas. Personally I was very glad for the drama surrounding the ballerinas. It's not just their friendships and allegiances that drew me in, but the level of intrigue surrounding the patronage system. Patronage isn't something unheard of in the arts, in fact I often lament that the days of individual patronage are over because I could do with some money to make art for a wealthy robber baron. Yet in the physical art world you give them art for their patronage. In the visual art world, particularity women, have other things to give... This is just another way you can sleep your way to the top. By aligning yourself as the mistress of a well-to-do noble, you get a better life and a better career. But at the same time this patronage system is creepy. You're being pimped out by the ballet to the richest bidder. I feel that this perfectly underscores why the revolution in Russia eventually happened. The rich used their influence to get the best mistresses, whether they wanted to be despoiled or not.

While the Russian Revolutions didn't start until 1905 with them culminating with the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the execution of the royal family in 1918 Death in St. Petersburg really felt like it was on the cusp of this big historical event. Tasha clearly depicts the disparity between the poor and the rich ending with the whiff of revolution in the air. While the other books with Lady Emily don't shy away from politics or historical events for some reason this book just felt more specific. This book made history more alive with Emily in the center of it. Therefore I couldn't help thinking of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Seriously, people stop doubting me about the show's genius, which are many of my friends. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was a formative show for me for many reasons and is probably why I love historical fiction so much. The series was created by George Lucas as an offshoot from the Indiana Jones film franchise as a way to engage children with history. I myself was very much engaged, and not just because of Sean Patrick Flanery, though he didn't hurt. The episode "Petrograd, July 1917" made the Russian Revolution more real to me than anything had before until now. To my mind there is a direct link from that episode to this book in making this era of Russian history more alive and vibrant than anything else I've ever read or watched. Therefore if Russian history is your podstakannik of tea don't miss this book.

With revolution in the air and the dawning of a new century, Emily is really coming into her own. While Emily thinks that the Russians not questioning a female's capability of being an investigator as societal progress I think that is only half the story. If you look to the ballerinas she is interviewing as part of her inquiries she is operating in a female dominated field. To these women, who many be forced to work within the patronage system, they still see that it's their own skill and drive that makes them succeed in the end. No matter how wealthy or high up their patron without the skill they could never succeed. So why can't a woman succeed in another field if she sets her mind to it? Ekaterina Petrovna and her love Mitya both shock Emily with their easy acceptance of her investigative role. While this does signify the bigger sea change I think it is also specific to the mindset in Russia. Revolutionaries didn't distinguish between male and female, they were all comrades, where women could effect as much change as men. I know it's odd to think of Russia as more progressive, but the revolution that was coming forever changed world history so it makes sense that they would be willing to see Emily as what she is and not dismiss her. That isn't to say her investigation was completely smooth sailing, but that there were less bumps in the road, less explanations than previously, and for this series going forward, it will be wonderful to see Emily embrace all the changes that are in store.


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