Monday, November 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Let the Dead Bury the Dead by Allison Epstein

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Allison Epstein is now a must-read author for me. I loved her debut, A Tip for the Hangman, so I was eager to read her newest release, Let the Dead Bury the Dead.

Let the Dead Bury the Dead
is an alternate history, so although the characters are all fictional, the story is placed in a historical context (Russia, 1812, just after Napoleon has been chased away) where it feels as if the events could be real. (Except, for the vila, the witch…) Slavic folklore is woven into the tale adding magical realism to the mix. I am not, in general, a fan of magical realism. And I admit that the first time Sofia turned into an owl, I was a bit put off. And yet, the characters were so compelling, the writing so beautiful, and the folk tales so perfectly adapted to fit in with the story, that it all worked to create a novel I couldn’t put down.

In the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the tsar wants to consolidate his power at home. If this means crushing the life out of his own people, the very people who supported his army and country, giving their all, so be it. The tsar and his family live in obscene luxury while the common people, pretty much everyone else, starve. The tsar’s second son, Felix, the Grand Duke, dared once to speak up for the people and found himself banished to a palace 15 miles from St. Petersburg where he has given himself over to idle hedonism.

Felix’s lover, the soldier Sasha, has now returned from the war. On his way to find Felix, he comes across a woman of unearthly beauty (Sofia) nearly dead from the cold, lying in the forest. He rescues her. This is something he quickly comes to regret. Sasha comes from the poor peasantry and was raised on the old stories. He recognizes a witch when he sees one.

Sofia plays on Felix’s ambition to convince him he is the leader the people need, setting things in motion and tearing the two lovers apart. 

At the same time, Marya, a young woman involved with a group of revolutionaries and the right hand of the group’s leader, Isaak, is busily helping to organize a general strike. It’s exceptionally dangerous as the tsar will certainly crack down at the merest hint of dissent. Nevertheless, Marya has faith that good can come out of a popular revolt. It’s necessary. Sofia works her magic on Marya also, convincing her that she has more to offer than simply following Isaak’s lead.

The novel works so well because of its moral ambiguity. Each of the main characters is partly right and very much wrong. The world is overwhelmingly against them and no simple solutions are available. Good can’t conquer evil when there is no pure good and no pure evil. (Although Sofia certainly comes close to pure evil, even she makes some good points. The tsar is evil, but evil in the commonplace cruel dictator way, and eliminating him will solve nothing.)

If you want to lose yourself in a beautiful historical fairy tale, I can’t recommend Let the Dead Bury the Dead highly enough.

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