I knew going in that Romanov would be an emotional read. A fantasy novel about the Russian royal family’s incarceration told from the view point of Grand Duchess Anastasia, it could hardly be a cheery book; after all, the horrifying historical ending to that imprisonment is common knowledge. However, in the first half of this novel, the author brings her characters to life with such clarity and compassion that she created a far more beautiful and moving story than I had prepared myself for.
The revolution has taken place and the Romanov family is living under house arrest in Tobolsk when we join them. The emperor has urged his children to befriend their guards in an effort to show the men that the family members are both ordinary humans and loyal Russians who want only what is best for the nation. Their behavior is to indicate in every way that they have no desire to be returned to the throne and want only to live quietly in exile. The plan is working beautifully until the Bolsheviks arrive.
At that point, the family is wrenched apart. The Tsar and Tsarina, along with daughter Maria, are taken away so that the Tsar may stand trial. As the Tsar prepares to leave, he steals a moment with Nastya (Anastasia) to give her an important mission. She must hide the family Matryoshka doll, which contains powerful spells that are their only chance of salvation.
Nastya has only a limited knowledge of spell work but even that limited knowledge is more than her siblings have. She is curious about the doll and its magic but can’t figure out how to use it. Regardless, her father warned her to save the spells within the doll until “the end” and while their situation is dire, all hope has not been lost. Nastya is distracted from her thoughts about all this by a most unexpected source. She has become fascinated by a young Bolshevik named Zash, a handsome soldier who seems as interested in her as she is in him. When, on a midnight scouting expedition she searches his belongings and finds a forbidden substance, she grows even more determined to discover all there is to know about him.
Then she learns a horrifying truth. Her father never got a trial but was moved to a dank prison in Ekaterinburg along with the Tsarina and Maria. She and her brother and sisters are forced to join them. The confinement is brutal: they are allowed outdoors for only an hour or two a day, the food is limited, there are lice and the area smells. There are bright sides too, though. Nastya and her sister Maria continue to befriend the Bolshevik guards, especially Zash and his equally adorable friend Ivan. History tells us that this ends with the soldiers on one side of a firing squad and the girls on another.
It should go without saying that historical novels are not history books. The author uses artistic license throughout, especially with the ending of the story. Additionally, Nastya sees her family far differently than history sees them and that is reflected in this text. Here, her father is a wise and loving head of his family, a man who loves Russia and its people; history tends to record a weak, fallible Tsar who led his nation to near ruin. The family see themselves as simple and humble folk, ready to be exiled to a “quaint Russian village and live out the rest of their lives as the common people did.” My own understanding of Russian history, which I will grant is limited, says they had no idea how the common people lived. For example, at one point, Nastya complains about the bread, tea and soup diet they are forced to eat and speaks of how it is starving them. One of the soldiers has to point out that they are living on the same rations. She complains about the homes they are staying in, but all of them have rooms like dining rooms and living rooms and libraries, something that many homes at that time did not have. The Romanovs had a personal physician for Alexei with them, as well as a maid for the Tsarina and a cook. Those things were probably not available to many of their subjects.
It would be easy to read that and judge Nastya and her family for their aristocratic tendencies but the author does a wonderful job of showing them as kind and loving people, getting by the best they can and adjusting to their circumstances as well as they are able. She also takes pains to show us the humanity of the guards, who often do little things to make life for the Romanov’s a bit easier.
Because the family is confined to their prisons/homes in the early part of the tale, the emphasis is on the characters and their lives. In the second portion, almost everything that occurs takes place while the characters are on the move, meaning that action drives the narrative. This latter portion also concentrates far more on the fantasy and inspirational/faith aspects of the story. The theme of forgiveness, which had been central to the narrative throughout, becomes almost painfully bombastic as everything progresses. No nuance is utilized at all, making the discussion of the topic overly simplistic and one sided. I also struggled with the fantasy/magic in the tale. Nastya had a book on spell mastery but we are never told what the manual contained, only what it did not. Regardless, I felt like her knowledge after reading it was even more rudimentary than mine and I’ve never read a single spell book. I blame this, in part, on her father. He gave her the Matryoshka doll but never took the time out to explain it or the magic it wielded to her. We see the family discuss other secrets, but this, their most powerful one, is never explained to the person who most needs that explanation. The weakness of this narrative thread, combined with the near preaching tone on the subject of forgiveness, detracted a tiny bit from what was actually a pretty exciting sequence of events.
The positive aspect of the second half of the story is that we do get to see Nastya in a much more authoritative and active role. Throughout the tale we get to enjoy her irrepressible spirits, her impish nature, and bubbly personality but watching her put all that into action was a lot of fun. This portion of the tale is also much more hopeful than the early section.
Romanov may not be perfect but it is a touching, remarkable novel. The prose is enchanting and piquant, and paints rich, emotional images. The subject matter is thought-provoking; not just what happened to the royal family but what caused things to get to the point of revolution. I’ve been haunted by the book, the sad fate of the Romanovs and everything surrounding the momentous night when they were shot since finishing it. I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a poignant take on an important piece of modern history.
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