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I'm looking for the title and author of a novel (series?) I read sometime in the late 2000s.

It was an alternate-world fantasy, but one heavily based on imperial Russia. The main (or maybe only?) form of magic is necromancy - specifically the control over the ghosts of dead people. To see and control the ghosts, necromancers have to take mind-enhancing drugs of their own devising. Most people find necromancy repugnant and it is strictly forbidden, with very few necromancers around.

The main plot involves a young (noble?) boy who teaches himself necromancy. He's found out and has to flee the country, but he eventually comes back and uses his knowledge to help combat an evil necromancer (a Rasputin-like character).

A key plot point is that ghosts only form from people who die tragically or are otherwise clinging to life. There's a scene where a woman condemned to die by the evil necromancer removes her clothes in the ice and snow and willingly dies of hypothermia, rather than resisting death and becoming a ghost that the evil necromancer can exploit.

  • You accepted that pretty quickly; so I'm just making sure you know about L E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Ghosts series: Of Tangible Ghosts, The Ghost of the Revelator, and Ghost of the White Nights, which are set in a magical, alternate Russia. lemodesittjr.com/the-books/ghost-books – Spencer Sep 15 '17 at 23:51
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This is The Wolf of Winter by Paula Volsky.

Of all the excesses indulged in by the decadent Rhazaullean nobility, only one is absolutely forbidden—necromancy. It is to these addictive arts that Prince Varis has secretly resorted, hoping to usurp the Wolf Throne through a serpentine choreography of murder and to forge a shining empire. But his greatest challenge comes in the person of his beautiful niece Shalindra, grown to womanhood in the shadow of exile and dedicated to the cause of bringing her brother Cerrov—the rightful heir—to the throne. Seized and brought to her uncle’s mountain stronghold, Shalindra is both repelled and fascinated by Varis, dark master of the dead, ruler of lost souls. As winter looms ahead, their encounter threatens to shape for both of them a destiny far different—and far more dangerous—than either could ever have imagined.

This review on Goodreads mentions many of the themes and elements in your question; Russian drug-induced necromancy and a royal protagonist.

The thing that captured me was the characterization of the art of necromancy, which I haven't seen done quite this way before: an esoteric magic requiring dangerous mind-expanding drugs that have unpredictable side effects, and which has an addictive, corruptive effect on the practitioner. The entire portrayal of the manipulated spirits as metaphysical lackeys and infinitely mutable ectoplasm was a unique take on the subject.

I'm not sure where Volsky was going with this theme. Varis succumbs to the corrosion, yet his necromantic practice and his dark ambition to usurp rulership are not connected except by the catch-all of insanity. In fact, as a character he is at the center of paradox: a man twisted by dark magic yet ruling justly and progressively (by his own statement, so perhaps not a reliable statement), and who has improved the lives of the populace, yet does not have its loyalty or love.

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