Hello book lovers!
Fun fact about me: I don’t normally read historical fiction. I don’t know why, especially when I used to love history at school, but it’s just not the kind of book I find myself reaching for.
A fantasy book based around historical events, however? I’m ALL OVER THAT.
I was immensely excited when I came across Romanov, not only does it have THE MOST BEAUTIFUL COVER that basically had me stroking it every five minutes, but it is also based around the history and myth of Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia. When Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and go into exile with his family, who were later slaughtered, rumors began circulating that Anastasia had somehow survived. Alas, history has now proved this is not the case, but the story still continues to fascinate and capture the hearts of many (including mine since watching the famous animated film and studying Russian history at ALevel!)
I was so excited to see how a YA novel would take on this topic, incorporating it with magic and mysticism, especially considering the role of Rasputin in history as a family friend and holy man who had a ‘mysterious’ hold over the family.
So, did mixing history and magic make for a good read? Find out below!
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.
So, I have a LOT of mixed thoughts about this book. If Romanov was a Russian (Matryoshka) Doll, I would say that there was a lot of fluff and filler on the outside, and it’s only as you go deeper into the story and keep removing dolls getting to the smaller more intricate ones that you finally get the juicy bits, the fun bits, and the real heart and message of the story.
I struggled with this book initially, so much in fact, that I was really contemplating DNF’ing it, which I cannot express enough as an extremely rare thing for me! The start of Romanov was agonizingly slow, following the families day to day struggles under house arrest after they are forced to flee their seat of power. The characters came across as flat and bland, and our lead protagonist, Anastasia also seemed rather uninteresting with a side of special snowflake syndrome. In addition, the magical elements were so minimal with only a supposedly magical Russian Doll (lying dormant) and some spell ink for healing appearing in the story. I was 100 pages in and struggling.
The thing is, the families experience in exile should have been fascinating – being confined with little exercise or sunlight, being under constant threat from Bolshevik guards, navigating a steely political reaction. There was SO much the author could have done with this! Instead, I felt as bored and confined as the Romanovs. The characters were just not interesting or emotive enough for me to be able to grab onto. The author also tried to force two romances in the first half that had as much chemistry as a slug and a snail!
Things FINALLY began to pick up around page 190, where history as we know it takes it course and Anastasia’s family are tragically executed. What follows is an adrenaline filled race against the Bolsheviks as they attempt to recapture Anastasia and her brother Alexei, who has a life-threatening blood disease that means his body won’t clot after a wound – somewhat problematic when you’re in mortal danger and on the run! As the Bolsheviks give chase in an attempt to destroy the Romanov line for good, the tension goes up a notch and the fantasy elements come into their own. Suddenly, there are fantastical things happening everywhere, and Nadine’s writing begins to shine as she brings a unique and intriguing magic system into play. I raced through the last 100 pages like a woman possessed, and felt emotionally drained as I turned the last page.
The thing is, pre pages 190 and post pages 190 felt like completely different books, and I find it very interesting that the authors note at the end of the novel says that she wanted to tell Anastasia’s true historical story and then the fictional story of how she might have gone on to live after that horrible night. That shift certainly shows, and in my opinion (and despite loving all the clever historical accuracies slotted in) the book suffers for it. The first half was a 2-star slog and the other half an engrossing 4-stars. What’s a reader to do?
My thoughts on the characters of Romanov are equally conflicted. While I didn’t take to Anastasia initially as I expected to, she did slowly grow and gain depth much of which is shown by her care for her brother Alexei and her pure determination to protect and stand by him, as well as her desire to do the Romanov name justice by staying true to her caring roots. Despite everything she goes through, she does not harden in her love for people, and her true power is in learning to forgive the unforgivable. Alexei, in contrast, was a great character I loved from the start. His ability to be so stoic and brave and humorous when in absolute agony and with his mortality looming like a black cloud was impressive and his sense of honour and duty never faltered.
We get brief glimpses into the other Romanov family members, in particular, Alix’s love for her children, Nicholas’s kind heart and, Maria’s naivety and yearning for a normal life, but they weren’t quite enough to satisfy me. I especially would have loved more depth to Nicholas and his state of mind after losing his crown. And of course, I can’t leave this review without briefly touching on Zash, a morally grey Bolshevik guard that keeps an eye on the family. Like Anastasia, he felt completely bland initially and his character did not work for me at all, but in the last 50 pages or so he won me over, and he developed just enough as a character to make him worth reading about.
Overall, Romanov feels like a book with a lot of untapped potential. It’s almost brilliant, but the slow start and the initially bland character presentation doesn’t ever quite recover, despite the fantastical and heart-wrenching finish which was so well done! Despite Nadine Brandes finally winning me over with her characters by the end, it felt like too little too late, and so this book gets a middling 3.5 stars.
Overall Impression: 3.5/5
Writing Style 3/5
Character Development 3.5/5
Would I recommend this book? Ack, it’s a tough call!