The Ice Swan
The Ice Swan captures émigré life in early twentieth-century France quite well, but the soapy trappings of the plot stretch credulity more than a tad and hreaten to collapse inward and crush the old skool romance that lies at the book’s heart.
It’s 1917, the Russian Revolution is happening, and Princess Svetlana Dmitrievna Dalsky , along with her mother and sister Marina, is ripped from her beloved home. Leaving behind her father, sweetheart and brother in Russia, she and the rest of her family begin living incognito in a French refugee camp. They live hand to mouth, holding onto precious jewelry which they sewed into their petticoats. Planning to wait until Svetlana’s father and brother join them, then to emigrate to safer quarters, their lives are stuck in a holding pattern. They live in constant fear of the revolutionaries finding and murdering them.
Svetlana meets aristocratic Scottish surgeon Edwynn MacCallan, the second son of the Duke of Kilbride, when he finds her bleeding outside of his hospital. Her leg has been gashed by a broken bottle; she says she fell and refuses to discuss details with him. He treats her but she remains haughty and silent about her condition – he soon learns the woman with her is her mother, who refers to her daughter as a princess. Hm. Edwynn had already suspected she might be of aristocratic birth thanks to her obvious good breeding and the lack of calluses on her fingers. Fascinated, Edwynn takes to looking in on Svetlana.
He soon learns that her mother spends time at The White Bear, a secret club for Russian expat royalty. Svetlana’s mother gambles heavily there, but has no income to pay her debts, slowly going into hock by wagering their precious jewels. Eventually she finds herself in debt to Leonid Sheremetev, a businessman with strong ties to the underground, who demands Svetlana pay off her debt by entertaining at the club. Since Svetlana was training to join the Imperial Russian Ballet (!!), she uses her skills to pay off her mother’s debts, dancing onstage at the White Bear. Eventually, he tries to force her to marry him.
Svetlana turns to Edwynn for help, and they agree to a marriage of convenience. They settle into their paper marriage, but Edwynn is a maverick – he pushes the boundaries of science as far and hard as he can, which means using new German techniques that haven’t had the approval of his superiors on his patients (!!). Chased by the Bolsheviks and Edwynn’s past, Svetlana, Marina, her mother and Edwynn head to Scotland, where horrible shocks and true love await them in equal measure.
The Ice Swan is a big, beery, melodramatic romance with just about every traditional plot trope you can think of. Impoverished royals with a tragic past? Check. Marriage of convenience? Check. Heroine falls for hero because he treats her sick sister? Check. Last quarter kidnapping plot? Check.
Svetlana is the most helpless heroine I’ve read in a few months. She is good and dutiful and has a strong faith in Christ, but she does not follow His teaching that maybe she should help herself just a little bit.
Most of the character’s decisions don’t make any real sense. Why would Svetlana and her mother choose to hold on to their jewels in the hope of permanent settlement in the (10 to 1) case their male relatives had survived? Why not cash in the jewels immediately and, at the very least, try to buy passage to a place where they would be less likely to be found by the Reds? The world was already filled with women who ran boarding houses and helped run family stores, so buying land to hold would be a reasonable idea for rich people. Instead, they mill around and live in tenements. Svetlana’s mother is a total ninny who lives like she’s still a princess royal, but the womens’ total lack of agency is maddening, even for creatures living in the 1910s. Also the notion of Svetlana being able to enter the Ballet as a princess is not a historically feasible notion. A life on the stage was for mistresses of royalty, not actual members of the royal family.
Edwynn has a not-that-surprising Deep Dark Secret which has driven his pursuit of surgical advancements, and his work as a doctor is in defiance of his social status Being the second son, he has rebelled and gotten a medical license. He’s yet another ducal heir hanging out in shanty towns mending orphan’s appendixes.
I found Svetlana and Edwynn’s romance fairly charming, and mainly forged from their kindness and wish to do good work for others. This and the book’s decently sketched historical background (aside from the ludicrous plot developments that keep haunting the character’s decisions) keeps this a D-level read for me.
As for the book’s religious content, there are moments of prayer and people hoping aloud that God will be with them, but the melodrama supersedes the faith aspect in the end.
Ultimately The Ice Swan might be worthwhile if you like marginally plausible historical epics and breathless, tear-filled romances that are light on realism. But for me it was barely passable.