Review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Title: The Enchantments
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 311 (print ARC edition)
Published: March 6 2012
Source: ARC from (AMAZING) blogger/publisher
Rating: 4/5

St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family—including the headstrong Prince Alyosha. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s miraculous healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disease that keeps the boy confined to his sickbed, lest a simple scrape or bump prove fatal.

Two months after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha grieve the loss of their former lives, finding solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, they tell stories—some embellished and some entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s many exploits, and the wild and wonderful country on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand.

Mesmerizing, haunting, and told in Kathryn Harrison’s signature crystalline prose, Enchantments is a love story about two people who come together as everything around them is falling apart.

You may not know Matryona Grigorievna by her first two names, but you will recognize her last, infamous name: Rasputina. The daughter of either Russia's most famous eccentric and healer or her most prolific sham, depending on who is asked, Masha's unique and by turns sad, very strange and moving story of life after her father's abrupt (and excessively violent) murder is a sure-to-please strong-female-character-powered novel. Enchantments was exactly what I wanted from another Russian historical fiction set about the same time (The Last Romanov) and didn't get: a fresh, compelling point of view, set during a popular and dangerous time period (the fall of the Romanov dynasty), a slight hint of romance that doesn't overpower character and/or plot development and (hopefully) amply furnished with enough accuracy to keep the tension high and the audiences interest consistently piqued. Veteran author Kathryn Harrison gracefully executes all these disparate parts to their utmost, with clear and tactile imagery and compelling prose. This is a darker novel in tone, for obvious and unavoidable reasons, but the intensity of the setting, the crackling tension and the characters desperation make for a moderately fast read.

I enjoyed almost everything there was to Enchantments. I did find the plot a bit lacking in some extended areas, but this is a novel that is carried by the strength of its cast. Harrison has a dab hand for foreshadowing ("There are those people who cannot be transplanted from one age to the next."), incrementally building up tension, and in setting up crucial, expected scenes without veering into predictability. Though the fate of the Romanov family is well known, Harrison makes their years-long journey to the House of Special Purpose compelling and touching. The unique POV perspective distinguishes this novel, as does the fact that Enchantments is more concerned about tsarevich Alexei's final days than either his brood of sisters or his parents. This is one of those historical fiction novels that makes a reader want to know more about the source material. As a ardent history major and freak, I was already well-versed in a lot of Romanov and Bolshevik Revolution lore, but Harrison's thoroughly developed and rounded versions of these real, flawed people reignited a previous cultural fascination with Russia and her Imperial family - I was Googling away on a vast array of subjects, people and events that had impact on this story.

As I intimated earlier, it really is the characters that make The Enchantment so compulsively readable. While Harrison sticks to facts for the bulk of her work, Masha's romantic entanglement with young Alexei provides a light spot in an overwhelming sad life. I appreciate the light hand used for the relationship - it felt natural and right for both characters, while not overpowering the more dramatic and worldly plotlines of the novel. The author also avoids the issue of characterizing Rasputin outside of his role as a doting father - while his life obviously impacts his daughters, Harrison never takes a side in the debate about his role as healer or heretic. Masha, obviously, believes in the power of her mystic father, and her belief is compelling but not convincing. Worshiped by some, reviled by others, but only truly understood by his devoted eldest daughter, Rasputin's magnetic pull is in evidence largely in absentia and its continued affect on Masha's life after his death.

To get a bit less positive about the novel, I will say that I found the shifts between the past and the present to be a bit disorientating. The flashbacks themselves are well-timed and chock full of historical detail and data without weighing down the overall plot and increasing intensity. Even when the expected end comes for Alexei, OTMA and the Imperial pair, Masha's dispassionate voice manages to convey her deep sorrow while keeping her emotional distance. I found the last part of the novel with Masha apart from the Romanovs —  lacked the dynamic of the previous chapters. I struggled slightly through the later, introspection-heavy pages devoid of interaction with the other players. But despite those few issues, there isn't much to malign here in Enchantments.

The unique, fresh approach of Rasputin's daughter, the finely and intricately drawn backdrop of Imperialist Russia, the wonderfully realized characters all made for a great historical fiction novel. People now tend to view Rasputin with the benefit of hindsight, often confusing the man with whatever he did or did not to to aid the downfall of the Tsars. Kathryn Harrison's Enchantments, through the eyes and ideas of his tale-spinning daughter, is singular in that it shows Russia's Mad Monk as a person, as a dad even, to great effect. Every choice Masha makes is influenced by her father and his desires for her and reading her life story as imagined by this author is a nice piece of historical escapism.

And this is the striking ebook cover (though I vastly prefer the more Russian-centric first one.)


  1. Everything you said here is true! So glad you enjoyed this one!!! And I do love the e-book cover -- beautiful!

    1. Thank you *so* much for the chance to read it :) I really enjoyed this and will be reading more by the author soon!


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