Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes
Debra Dean
The Mirrored World
Harper / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-23145-2
Publication Date: 08-28-2012
224 Pages; $25.00
Date Reviewed:10-24-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy

The wolves are not just at the door as Debra Dean's 'The Mirrored World' begins. They've let themselves in and come upstairs to speak with young Dasha, telling her that their house is on fire, and that, from now on, they will be living with her. Dean's novel, set in Russia as Empress Elizabeth hands over the throne to Catherine the Great, reads in many ways like a Russian fairy tale. We meet saints-to-be in ice palaces, and see the helpless poor living in proudly in poverty. The details of the period are all ripped from history. It is Dean's talent to transform them with crystalline prose and a finely wrought vision into a powerful novel that is filled with a resigned joy. And while 'The Mirrored World' mirrors a world that is very, very different from ours, the undercurrents of those times find echoes in ours.

Dasha, a young peasant in Saint Petersburg in the 1730's, is awakened one night by the coming of her cousin, Xenia. (It's pronounced ex-HAY-ne-uh.) Xenia is older than Dasha, but younger than Dasha's big sister, the cold and cruel Nadya. As the three grow up, each is steered towards a different fate; Nadya to marriage, Dasha to spinsterhood and Xenia to sainthood. 'The Mirrored World' is the story of the making of the real Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg as told by her imagined cousin, Dasha.

'The Mirrored World' is a short book that is easily read, but Dean packs quite a bit in without overpowering the reader. A large cast of well-rendered characters is easily established by Dasha's first-person narration. Dean's skill in creating these characters might be overlooked because she does it so effortlessly, but the effect is impossible to deny. You'll get a book-brick's worth of people here in short order with all the nuances that usually require far too many pages. Dean invests them all with the right emotional heft to make them memorable.

Nadya is calculating and clever, able to climb the social ladder even though it offers her only crumbs; Dasha, unable and rather unwilling to do much, is the spectator who watches Xenia, the free spirit, follow her heart in a society where that is neither normal nor wise. The men in their lives, husbands, suitors, and fathers have a stoic, smartly-drawn feel that brings them to a more dour level of life.

The events that bring about Xenia's sainthood in the months and years that follow are extremely well plotted. Dasha's story covers a life — a whole life, but will not require very much of yours to read. Dean's ability to slip through time and give a glittering portrait of a world now gone is the result of gorgeous but understated prose. 'The Mirrored World' is a pleasure to read on every level.

If Russia of the 1730's and the fairy-tale atmosphere seem at first remote, they won't for long. 'The Mirrored World' proves to be a story of universal emotions, in conditions that, if you strip away some of the artifacts of culture and history, are all too familiar. 'The Mirrored World' looks at sainthood — and what it takes to make a saint — as a reasonable response to a society where insane wealth collides with incredible poverty. Readers will warm to Dasha's tale of woe, set in a frigid time in a frozen winter landscape, and wonder where our saints are, who among us walks the streets as a Holy Fool, eyes full of a future as yet unimaginable to those of us fortunate enough to see only the present.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us