Book Reviews

Romanov: review! // lots of magic but problematic

If you have ever been somewhat fascinated by the demise of the Romanovs, then I’m sure your interest will be piqued by this book. I was so excited to finally read it, but unfortunately, I ended up disappointed… Fasten your seat belts, this will be a lengthy review!

Title: Romanov
Author: Nadine Brandes
Genre: young adult historical fiction
Published on May 7th, 2019 by Thomas Nelson
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The history books say I died.
They don’t know the half of it.

As the Bolshevik army takes the Romanov family into exile following the revolution, Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov has one important task: to smuggle a magical Matryoska doll. In it, there is a spell that could change the fate of the Russian family. As the Romanovs are taken to Yekaterinburg, spell masters from all over Russia are being hunted and killed, and Nastya could be next.

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Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This has not influenced my opinions and rating.

The story of Anastasia and of the demise of the Romanovs has always fascinated me. Russian history is so rich and sad and powerful! So as soon as I saw this book being released and marketed as a magical historical fiction retelling of what happened to Princess Anastasia, I knew I had to read it — even though I don’t read Young Adult that much nowadays.

But unfortunately, this book wasn’t for me. I had some problems with it at several levels, and I want to share them with you today. Yet, this is not a bad book, not at all!

I thought the plot was very interesting and captivating. The novel opens with the Romanov family still at Tobolsk just a few days before Alexandra, Nicholas, and Maria have to move away to Yekaterinburg, where life is much harder, by order of the Soviets.

It’s an interesting tale of captivity. The family has been away from their palace for more than a year then and still living in relative comfort. We get to see what life was like behind closed doors and how they interact with each other.

When the novel reaches its climax, the plot gets very fast paced and even more gripping. Without giving much away, there is magic, running away from Bolshevik soldiers, lying, and deceiving. In short, anything that makes a novel irresistible to me! Romanov definitely does not fail in the interest-level of the plot.

Romanov develops at two different speeds. The first half of the book is quite and thoughtful — it takes its time to paint a picture of the Romanov’s lives. The second half, however, is incredibly fast — almost too fast, bordering on dizzying.

Personally, I love slow-burn reads. I love it when an author takes their time setting the scene and not rushing anything. At the same rate, I hate action sequences that make you lose track of who is kicking who and who just shot who. I don’t know why, but my head starts spinning and it just won’t stop.

This is of course something personal, so I’m not expecting most readers of Romanov to have a problem with this. However, the fact that the second half of the novel is so fast-paced made me get sick of it really fast. I would have appreciated if the pace had been slower.

My biggest problem with Romanov was its accuracy and veracity.

Writing historical fiction isn’t easy. There is historical facts to follow and somehow still breathe freshness and life into a story. I appreciate what Brandes has done with Romanov, as it adds a twist to a very well-known and fascinating story.

But at the same time, I feel like the author failed to portray the action in a believable manner. There’s a very fine line that needs to be walked separating great historical fiction and pure romantization of historical accounts. And with this book, I think Brandes fell more on the romantization side than on the great historical fiction side.

One example of this is how the Romanov family, especially Nicholas II, is portrayed. In the book, they’re presented to the reader as a terrific family who was great at ruling and never did anything to warrant their forced abdication. This is so, so, so not true — and any history book will tell you this. It makes sense that Nastya looks at her dad with admiration, but to go so far as to completely deny the fact that he was not a good ruler? It feels like the author was writing a love letter to the Romanov family. It would have been much more interesting to have seen an unfit-for-ruling family pitted against the cruel Bolsheviks who executed them. This is an issue I’ll return to shortly.

An even clearer example of how unbelievable the story feels at times is how Alexei survives every injury that comes with captivity even though he has hemophilia. This isn’t a spoiler, just something that struck me as odd countless times throughout the novel.

👑 Read: Simon Sebad Montefiore’s article that explores the characters of the last members of the Romanov Family and the Russian fixation with the remains of the royals 👑

The characters seemed a little too two-dimensional in this novel, but this is nothing I can’t forgive Brandes for. We’re introduced to a whole cast of characters, from the Romanov family, to their servants, and to Bolshevik soldiers and commanders. While they all have Russian names, it wasn’t hard to remember who was who, despite me not even knowing any Russian.

Anastasia is by far the leading character. One thing I really appreciated about her was her determination and loyalty to the family. Nastya goes to all lengths to protect those she loves and to perpetuate their family line. It was very empowering to see, even if I disagreed with certain choices she made in these pages.

But my favorite aspect of this novel related to the characters was how balanced and incredible the family dynamics are. It was so refreshing seeing a loving family that refuses to abandon each other even in the direst of times. Nicholas seems to be an amazing father, Alexandra is a loving mother, Alexei is a cautious brother who loves with his whole heart, and everyone else just fits perfectly into the Romanov dynamic. For the way their family dynamic was portrayed, this book instantly deserves a star.

Now this is where things went sour for me. Before I bring up the problematic issues I had with Romanov, I want to come out and say I support neither of the sides involved in the 1917 Revolution debate (or, rather, altercation). My feelings and political views do not matter for this review, but I want this to serve as a disclaimer.

Firstly, I hated how Nadine Brandes framed the Revolution of 1917. Unfortunately, the writer rendered a complex political issue into something of right or wrong. She fails to capture the true essence of the conflict. And for a novel set at the heart of an event that forever changed the course of world history, this is a crass error that should have been avoided. I understand that Nastya, as the narrator, has grievances toward the Bolsheviks. After all, they did kidnap her family and will execute them (although she doesn’t know this from the start). Yet, she fails to see her father’s ruling as anything but spectacular. It would have been amazing to see her grow as a character and be able to embrace more points of view. But, alas, Brandes did not nail this aspect.

One very clear example of what I mean is Anastasia’s complete inability to even address the 1905 Bloody Sunday. It is a huge chapter in Russian history, and one of the many causes for the forced abdication of tsar Nicholas II. On that fateful day in 1905, thousands of unarmed citizens marched to the tsar palace (Winter Palace) in Saint Petersburg, led by a priest, to petition the tsar. The ruler, instead of listening to them (despite what Nastya claims over and over in the novel) ordered his guards to open fire, killing thousands and wounding even more. The image of Nicholas II as a thoughtful ruler who loves his people and is open to dialogue that Brandes gives us seems too off brand to characterize the former tsar.

At the same time, Brandes speaks of communism as though it had demonic roots. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark down the page, but when discussing the democratization of the access to spell masters (people able to heal the sick, among other powers), she points out what in her eyes is the big downfall of communism. I am sure many will agree with what Nastya says — something along the lines of: those who do not work are rewarded the same as those who work diligently. However, this observation feels so out of character for her! Despite her being a Romanov, up to that point I saw Nastya as a bright young woman, one who is capable of complex thoughts. Yet here, I was completely blindsided and disappointed by her lack of empathy with her people. All I felt like doing was to say “Sure, Nastya, I am certain you worked hard to gain your privilege. And I am also certain you are familiar with what being poor and unable to climb up the social ladder feels like.” It really killed the political side of the book (and the love for Anastasia) for me.

Sure, it may be argued that Nastya can’t see communism as a good political model because 1) she is a Romanov and being attacked by them, and 2) she has never struggled. However, she is presented to us as a complex and well-read character. She is also sixteen (or seventeen) years old. I don’t believe a girl who was brought up in the middle of Russia’s political center can afford to look the other way when it comes to something as important as this.

I am left wondering what the goal of the author was when she decided to paint the royal family in bright, vivid colors and completely demonize the Bolsheviks. Did she doubt young adult audiences could handle the complexity of politics not being about right and wrong? That there are multiple shades of gray in between both polar opposites? I wish Brandes hadn’t fallen into the trap of demonizing communism and “the bad guys” and instilled more complexity into the novel. It would have made for a much more interesting read and would have helped break the stereotype that young adult literature is shallow. Teenagers and young adults aren’t five-year-old children!

Of course I couldn’t leave the review off on a bad note. I swear this is not a bad novel, by all means! The magic system, for example, is super interesting and easy to follow!

I wasn’t expecting there to be magic like this in the book. So I’m glad that it was easy to follow, clear, and rich. It’s not super expansive—after all, Romanov clocks in at around 350 pages. But it was handled well and it motivated me to keep reading to find out more!

In this world, there are spell masters who can do magic. I’d say it’s a good mix of magic and alchemy, since you’re not actually born with any powers. There’s this spell ink that must be used to perform all spells. The way I see it working is by dabbing a finger on the ink and then writing some words (of course they have a specific meaning) on the surface you want magified (let’s pretend this is a word, shall we?). There is also a magic Matryoska doll — but I won’t say anything about it as it is a very big part of the plot! You’ll just have to wait and see…

Have you read Romanov yet or are you still itching to pick it up? Let me know your thoughts!

11 thoughts on “Romanov: review! // lots of magic but problematic

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