Hello Humans! Who is ready for a little Russian historical fantasy? Romanov is the latest book from Nadine Brandes, author of Fawkes – a book which felt like it was blowing up the bookish internet for a time last year. I read Fawkes and, while I did enjoy it, it wasn’t a world-changing book for me. However, since my knowledge of Russian history is a little bit stronger than my knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot I thought Romanov might be a winner, I’m also more than a little bit obsessed with both the film and the musical Anastasia – though I knew this wasn’t going to have anything to do with that, except for the inspiration.
The history books say I died.
They don’t know the half of it.
Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov was given a single mission: to smuggle an ancient spell into her suitcase on her way to exile in Siberia. It might be her family’s only salvation. But the leader of the Bolshevik army is after them . . . and he’s hunted Romanov before.
Nastya’s only chances of survival are to either release the spell, and deal with the consequences, or enlist help from Zash, the handsome soldier who doesn’t act like the average Bolshevik. Nastya’s never dabbled in magic before, but it doesn’t frighten her as much as her growing attraction for Zash. She likes him. She thinks he might even like her . . .
That is, until she’s on one side of a firing squad . . . and he’s on the other.
This review might contain spoilers if you don’t know your Russian history – if you do then you’ll be fine.
I have a pretty good working knowledge of this period in Russian history. I actually studied this period quite intensively during my History A – Level. I’ve also got quite a bit of knowledge about the pop-culture surrounding the Anastasia Romanov myth/legend/rumour such as the film and the musical (though they aren’t hugely factual they are useful for inferring what kind of stories you could tell with this kind of inspiration). I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an expert, I think it would be fairly obnoxious to do so, but I will say that I know a fair amount about this rather tumultuous period in history.
I think that’s part of where this book lost me, at least a little. The assassination of Nicolas II and his family was only in 1918 (July 17th for those interested) so only 100 years ago. I’m not suggesting that those murders, therefore, matter more than those that happened in 1605 when the Gunpowder plot happened. I am suggesting that we have a greater amount of written, photographic and other kinds of evidence for these people who lived and the reasons they were killed. For whatever reason, it’s a lot easier to think of the murders/deaths in Fawkes in the abstract whereas everything in Romanov felt a lot closer at hand. To spin a book, a large amount of which is romance, out of something that was first, such a huge historical event and secondly, so recent rubs me the wrong way.
I do think fiction, in particular, historical fiction, can be a way to educate and it can be a great way to process events from history. Perhaps if I were seventeen again and studying Russian history I might have even found this helpful in being able to get inside the minds of the people I was studying. However, where this book veers away from history (putting aside the fact that magic exists – it’s a historical fantasy I’m not going to critique that) and has Anastasia survive it became something that made me a little uncomfortable.
Largely that was because of the romance. Were this a totally fictional setting it might have been a little easier to read, but with the added knowledge that these people were killed it is at best upsetting and at worst irritating to read a romance between a girl and the person who killed her. Sorry. No. I’m not on board, I don’t need to hear the explanation, you shot me so I’m not romancing you. This would be irritating in an entirely fictional setting but you could probably have written your way out of it, to apply it to real people who actually died just over 100 years ago is rather more troublesome.
I think this book could have been done really well, I liked the writing style and I enjoyed the magic system – it uses ink and writing down/saying words and is generally really cool. But to include that romance felt like a strange choice.
Another issue I had was that I don’t think it was ever made clear how much trouble the people of Russia had been in before the Russian revolution (not suggesting that Communism fixed all of their problems by any means). It seemed like Nastya had a ‘well we aren’t that posh really’ response to any criticism levelled at her, and I’m not sure she ever really had that moment of ‘oh no wait my family isn’t necessarily the answer to all of these problems.’ I think that could have been an interesting character arc to follow but instead, you read about a weird and somewhat toxic romance?
I was disappointed by this book because it has so many things that I did enjoy, the writing style, the magic system, the characterisation, the pacing – all of these things were great. But I couldn’t get past the things that Brandes opted to bring to the forefront (the romance).
My rating: 2/5
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
What say you? Would this bother you? Let me know in the comments below.