Let The Dead Bury The Dead by Allison Epstein (EXCERPT)

Hi, readers! As we head into the weekend, let me gift you with an excerpt from Allison Epstein’s latest novel, Let The Dead Bury The Dead.

The war is over – it’s 1812 and Russian forces have defeated Napoleon. Sasha, a self-made captain of the Imperial Army, is finally coming home to his lover, the wayward Grand Duke Felix in Saint Petersburg. Sasha’s been dreaming of this moment but before he even makes it to Felix’s doorstep, their reunion is interrupted by a mysterious woman lying in the snow, Sofia. Maybe it’s all the folk tales Sasha grew up on, but he begins to suspect Sofia may not be…human. This twisted tale unfolds in Allison Epstein’s latest novel, LET THE DEAD BURY THE DEAD (Doubleday, Fiction; October 17, 2023).

Sofia’s presence drives an instant wedge between the reunited lovers. Sasha sees a cunning and dangerous witch, while Felix is charmed and taken by her political suggestions. Under her spell, Felix and Sofia separate from Sasha to join a dissident group of organizers, the Koalitsiya. They’re brewing up the largest strike the city has ever seen and Sasha is tasked with tracking the man he loves. Sofia’s power grows and tensions rise as the future of Russia could be forever changed.

Inspired by the Decembrist Revolt, Epstein creates a rich world full of revolutionaries, fairy tales and love in this reimagined history. Her irreverent and infectious sense of humor jumps through the thrilling and fast-paced story as she transports readers to dark and surreal Imperial Russia. Read on for an excerpt from the very first chapter:



These woods would have run wild, if they’d been allowed to. Not far from here, the forests owned the land—tangled trees, ground rooted up by wild boars and badgers, vegetation-choked lakes that stories said were home to wicked spirits, because what else could thrive in water so black? But the woods outside Tsarskoe Selo were the tsar’s woods, and anything belonging to the tsar meant order, regularity, precision. It was winter now, but all year round these trees were as pristine as if a Dutch master had painted them. The only thing out of place was Aleksandr Nikolaevich, who knew he was as far from imperial splendor as it was possible for a man to be. Long stretches of frozen track and heavy drifts made the trek from Saint Petersburg slow going, and because Sasha’s horse was property of the Imperial Army, he’d been forced to leave it at the final outpost and take the last fifteen miles to Tsarskoe Selo on foot. He’d intended to trim his beard before leaving camp, but that hadn’t happened either, and so he looked as bedraggled and ill-prepared as he felt with each step nearer to the Catherine Palace. What would Felix think of him, when he stumbled into the grand halls of the imperial estate? Hardly a celebrated hero returning from the wars. A vagabond, rather, begging for a place to stay.

The war was over, Napoleon and his Grande Armée fleeing west pursued by a determined force of regulars who would snap at their heels all the way to Paris, but no one had told Sasha’s nerves. Every sense was pricked for anything amiss. The trill of a bird. The creak of tall firs, dusted with snow and ornery with cold. The wind, muffled and hollow through the worn fur of his hat. No sign of danger, not yet, but that was the trick about danger; it seldom gave a sign. The fighting at the end hadn’t been like it was before, at the blood-soaked field of Borodino, the disastrous losses at Austerlitz, but it would take more than the retreat of the French emperor to convince Sasha that this was, in fact, a time of peace.

A gap between the trees, and the gilded roof of the Catherine Palace rose through the dusk, bright enough to make Sasha’s heart shudder. Its burnished domes were like a cathedral in the wilderness, glittering against the robin’s-egg walls. After so long at the front, the palace seemed like a dream, some fantasy one of Felix’s cooks would spin from sugar and marzipan. Another step, and it was gone, lost in the leafless tangle of branches. Beautiful, but insubstantial. It seemed impossible that such a delicate structure could exist in the same world where the roar of cannons rattled men’s teeth, where the choke of gunfire blotted out the sun. He kept to the path, forcing his thoughts down a different track. A warm fire. A chance to unlace his boots. A smile from Felix, the sound of his voice, not a dream of it but the reality, the true color of which could never be recreated, not even in the most faithful memory. He sighed at the thought, the thick cloud of his breath catching in his hat like frost. I told you I’d come back in one piece, he’d say to Felix, when they were alone. It takes more than a war to keep me away from you.

Then he stopped.

Without the crunch of his footsteps, the silence was total. And yet he was certain he’d heard something. A small thump. Muted, like a body falling into the snow.

The idea was nonsense. Forests made noises. Snow fell from tree branches. Birds shook dead twigs loose. Badgers raked their claws along tree bark for food to bring back to their setts. He’d been moving since dawn, that was all. Sit down, get something to eat, and the world would start to look like itself again.

The next sound was a soft exhale, distinctly human and not his own.

Sasha looked off into the woods. The woods looked back invitingly.

It wasn’t late, but dusk fell early now, and soon it would be dark in earnest. And while he no longer believed the midwinter stories his mother had told around the stove when he was a child, there was still no cause to go looking for trouble. Men weren’t meant to walk through woods alone, even manicured woods like these. Too many threats could lurk in the shadows: the scale-crusted vodyanoy, snatching travelers from the banks of its lake to gnaw on their bones beneath the surface; long-haired rusalki, ghostly women luring men to their graves to avenge their own deaths. Nonsense and superstition, fairy stories to keep children indoors after dark, but nightmares didn’t die as quickly as belief in them did.


That breath again, and this time a soft groan. A woman’s voice. Sasha crossed himself and cut sideways into the woods. Despite his better judgment, curiosity remained like the itch of a healing wound, more insistent until every nerve twitched against it. Some instinct—what, he couldn’t have said—insisted that whatever had happened here, it was his responsibility.

It didn’t take long before the trees opened into a clearing ringed with tall pines. In the center, he saw a woman, lying on her side in the snow.

Had it been any darker, he’d have missed her entirely. Her long, thin coat was the same shade as the snow; in the dying light, she resembled a disembodied head and pair of hands lying in the powdery drift. Her hair covered most of her face, and it was not gray or blond but white—not the white of age, but of feathers, of sun reflected off a frosted window. She lay as if she’d fallen from a great height, one cheek pillowed against the snow.

Sasha’s mother always said a vila could change her appearance at will. Cunning spirits of the forest and the air who could assume the female form most pleasing to the man they meant to trap, their sharp laughter ringing as they rent their prey to pieces. He looked up, half expecting to see a grinning demon with silver eyes leering in the branches overhead. But his view to the sky was unbroken, pale gray shot through with red, minutes from sunset. The woman in the snow seemed to shimmer in the fading, otherworldly light. Was this what the painted angels in Petropavlovsky Cathedral would look like if they fell to earth?

A fallen angel, he thought grimly, and yet to his knowledge one angel in particular was famous for making that fall.

The figure shivered, and suddenly she was no longer a fiend, but a woman in need of help. He flinched, thinking of the boys in tattered French uniforms he’d seen lying on the Smolensk road, flesh blue and frozen stiff. He had witnessed enough of that and done nothing—but this was peacetime, this was different. And if Felix’s first glimpse of Sasha in months cast him as this poor woman’s savior, there were worse impressions to make.

Snowdrifts reached well past his ankles as he forced his way toward the woman. The thick boots of his uniform were ideal for heavy wear, but no clothing in the world was suited for a jaunt through uncleared snow in December. Damp and cold, he knelt beside her, ignoring the wet shock as the snow met his knees. The curtain of hair still obscured her face. He reached out a gloved hand to brush it back.

Her skin, what he could see of it, was nearly translucent and tinged with purple. She barely moved against his touch, but he could see no lacerations, no bruises, no broken bones, and her breathing was easy. He gritted his teeth, then shrugged off his overcoat and draped it over the woman, allowing winter to pierce the weave of his uniform. Lifting her was easier than he’d expected, as if her bones were hollow. As he forged a path back to the road, the woman’s heartbeat matched his, seemingly sympathetic to his shivering. In a few minutes, they’d both be inside, a soldier and a stranger in a palace of royals. What happened after that was outside his control, and things past control were past concern.

Soon the woods gave way to cleared paths and neat grounds, carefully manicured beneath the snow. He held the woman close and quickened his pace toward the Catherine Palace, that great hollow building with its five spires catching the last flares of the sun. Marzipan dream. Gilded prison. Either way, warm, and out of the wind. The woman stirred in his arms; in shock, he nearly dropped her.

It had only been a twitch, but that was enough. Alive enough to move. Thank God. Entering the palace holding a corpse wasn’t the effect he’d been aiming for.

“It’s all right,” he said under his breath. “We’re nearly there.”

The woman gave a soft hum and cracked one eye open, the lashes barely separating. One golden eye. A rich tawny yellow, bright as a coin.

He blinked, and her eyes were closed again, pale lashes against lilac skin. The inhuman color was gone, as if it had never been.

Because it had never been. Now was not the time to let his imagination run wild. Without his coat, the cold set in deep. He could feel his numbed hands falling slack around the woman, threatening to drop her at any moment.

When he kicked the side door in lieu of a knock, it gave way at once, which annoyed Sasha but did not surprise him. For all that he was the younger son of the tsar, Grand Duke Felix was startlingly lax in matters of personal safety. If Felix hadn’t left every door of the palace open in Sasha’s absence for robbers and brigands to stroll through and help themselves to imperial heirlooms, he supposed he should count himself lucky. Sasha set off in the direction of Felix’s private apartments. At the very least, he’d find a servant there to direct him. And to lock the door behind.

The Catherine Palace was the same as when he’d last seen it six months before, and for a hundred years before that. Time moved slowly for the imperial family, however quickly it passed for their subjects. Take a stroll down Krestovsky Island in Petersburg where Sasha had grown up, and barely one building in twenty was older than he was. Homes and taverns and shops bloomed and died like crocuses, progress cycling through and leveling anything that had outlived its utility. But this hall hadn’t been altered since the last tsar had walked through it, or the tsarina before him. Polished mirrors capped with gold, marble floors, portraits of severe-looking men draped in military medals looking down their noses at Sasha and the woman. Avoiding their eyes, Sasha watched the gentle ripple of the woman’s breathing instead. He was thirty-one years old, and yet the disdain in these paintings made him feel like the awkward youth he’d been when he’d first seen the imperial family, a new cadet with an ill-fitting uniform and hungry eyes. His boots left heavy prints of mud and snow along the marble, but that would be a servant’s task to deal with later. This garish palace could stand a brush of something natural.

Reprinted with permission from Let The Dead Bury The Dead by Allison Epstein. Copyright © 2023 Allison Epstein. All rights reserved.

Let The Dead Bury The Dead by Allison Epstein was published October 17 2023 by Doubleday Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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