ROMANOV BY NADINE BRANDES
G’day friends! So, I wasn’t planning on writing this review (because I have so many other reviews that I urgently need to write *NetGalley screams at me in the distance*) but I just finished this book yesterday (as I’m writing this) and I kind of need to write my thoughts, because I honestly don’t know how I really feel about this book. I kind of started this series with my review of Wicked Saints by Emily Duncan, where I question whether the book was worth the hype – and this post is meant as a continuation of that series.
Something which i totally just thought of, not gonna lie.
Anyway, this post will mainly be a review post of the newly released young adult novel, Romanov by Nadine Brandes. I have never read a Brandes novel before, but from like what feels like everyone on bookstagram and booktwitter, Romanov was a book that had people frothing at the mouth. Me included!! When I saw the synopsis on Netgalley, I requested the shit out of it – because it sounded wonderful with the added bonus of Russian history!
Obviously, my request was denied but I saved it on my wishlist on Bookdepository and waited for its release.
And when it was released – I added it to my cart so fast I GOT WHIPLASH.
Basically, I was super excited.
The problem that I believe I had going in to the whole reading experience, was my expectations. I expected Romanov to be more of a magical adventure, Anastasia ‘Nastya’ Romanov, doing her best to become a powerful spell-caster and seek revenge for the execution of her family. I thought the story would begin with the murder of her family, and then the rest of the novel would be her growth into magic and her story, but instead majority of the book was focused on the family in exile.
It wasn’t a bad thing, but it then made the last 100 pages zoom by so quickly and the story got tied up in a neat little bow with implications of the ‘future’ to satisfy the readers.
Also, THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS!!!!!! SO PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!!
Thoughts on the Narrative
Let’s get into the overall ‘narrative’ review, shall we?
The novel begins by depicting the Romanov family in exile in the Governor’s mansion in Tobolst. The Bolshevik army guards them, mostly to keep them from escaping or from the White Army from rescuing the Romanov family. The readers are placed within this story a few weeks after Tsar Nicholas abdicated and was then exiled, wherein the Romanov family is in limbo, unknowing of their future and why they are not able to live freely in a village in Russia as the Tsar abdicated his throne due to a variety of factors.
The story doesn’t dwell here for long, it is only to spur the moment in which Nastya is told by her dad, the Tsar, to grab a special Mastroskya doll hidden behind a Pushkin book in the library and to protect it as it will help the family in the future.
This happens as well as being introduced to the romantic interest Zash, but that’s not really important here.
It is when the entire family is taken to the second exile location in Ekaterinburg at the Ipatiev House where the story get’s slightly more interesting.
The first 200 pages is about showcasing the depth of love between the Romanov family and their servants who came with them into exile. It’s about demonstrating the impact and effects of being completely cut off from the outside world, you’re every movement monitored, your every conversation heard. It was heartbreaking to see how the isolation affected the entire family; especially the mother and Alexei, as they were mostly bed-ridden because of illnesses.
But it was also to show how the Romanov family befriended the Bolshevik soldiers guarding them/watching them and forged relationships with these soldiers who were so determined to hate the Romanovs until they realised they were not entirely ‘villains’.
The issues I had with this aspect of the narrative was that I found it quite slow. I understand why, to emphasise the forging of these relationships, of the loyalties that were building during the imprisonment; but nothing very significant happens. For instance: there’s no fresh air in the five rooms the Romanov family are held within, they get head lice because of the conditions, Maria (Nastya’s sister) falls in love with a sympathetic soldier, the Tsar cant’ read the newspaper, their time outside becomes limited to half an hour a day when the commandant officer changes to the officer from Tobolsk (who knows Nastya has the magical doll), Nastya loses the doll, the commandant threatens her; and the most ‘dramatic’ other than the family execution, was Maria’s boyfriend soldier being shot dead.
I think it was more about implying the tension of the family being in exile. But I just found it just slightly boring – I was constantly waiting for something to happen but nothing super significant did.
The second ‘act’, so to speak, of the novel was in the aftermath of the family being executed. They were shot by a firing squad in the basement of the house by the soldiers but Nastya and Alexei survived by magic from the doll.
The last 100 pages was the ‘journey’ of Nastya, Alexei and Zash attempting to find one of the most powerful spell masters, Doschkin, to heal Alexei before he died from his injuries as he has hemophilia.
That was the ‘magical journey’.
It felt rushed and kind of redundant, even though Alexei was dying so i get that they were trying to save him, but it felt like such a waste to have the rest of the book focused just on this. I mean, you have Russia and Lenin and the Red Army killing peeps who don’t abide by them as well as spell masters being executed for their magic – like there is so much more that this book could have delved into!!!!
I think that was why I was slightly disappointed with this novel.
Characters, issues, concluding thoughts.
I won’t talk about all of the characters, but I will be focusing on Nastya as her perspective is the one that this book is written in.
I enjoyed her character, I enjoyed reading the book from her perspective; she was young enough that there was an element of innocence woven through the narrative but also old enough that her intelligence was also shown through her internal dialogue as well as her actions.
What I mean by her ‘innocence’ is more to do with how she perceives the world and her family. Through Nastya, the readers become aware of the public’s and thus, the Bolshevik’s, attitude towards the Romanovs. Through Natsya, this ‘divide’ between the two seems quite black and white. In that, ‘no one knows how nice, humble, ordinary, etc., the Romanovs are so let’s show them’, kind of thing. It was just a very innocent way of looking at it – but this notion was also portrayed through the character of the Tsar. The Tsar was emphasised as this ‘leader’ who was not weak or apathetic, but actually deeply cared and loved every Russian citizen, even those responsible for his imprisonment and exile. It was a direct contrast to what was believed to be the personality of the Tsar, both in the story and in the actual historical record. Through Nastya, our understanding of the Tsar and his actions was painted with a sort of superficial brush. I think that if there is a story that is based on historical fact, which this novel is in terms of using historical figures as characters, the places of exile, the commandants, the soldier who fell in love with Maria, the white army, the red army, the execution, etc.; I feel that there should have been a mention of why the public actually felt that the Tsar was a terrible ruler – hence his abdication and his exile.
When Zash, for instance, would state his opinions about the Romanov family, Nastya was very much not wanting to hear it. Although, in some dialogue she says to him that she wants to understand, there isn’t ever a conversation about it.
I think that was a glaring issue for me. That could have been an interesting plot point, an exploration of Nastya realising that her father’s rule was not all rainbows and misunderstanding of her family’s intentions for their people. That it was based on real feelings and real actions or inactions by her father and the people enacting his rule.
For instance, the concept of the Tsar as being ‘weak willed‘ came from the fact that he was staunchly determined to rule from the throne “despite the fact that he clearly lacked the necessary qualities to do so” (HTAV, Reinventing Russia, p. 13). His coronation, HIS CORONATION, resulted in over one thousand people being killed in a surging crowd, in which he continued on with the ceremony. He was known for his ‘encouragement’ and inaction over extreme anti-semitism which led to the pogroms that took place in the Pale Settlement – he did nothing to protect Jews.
When Father Georgei Gapon established the Assembly of Russian Factory workers, he wanted to approach the Tsar a year later with local workers, to outline to the Tsar the grievances of the people of St Petersburg. So, it has been claimed that the day before the march was to occur, Gapon met with the Justice Minister who would then in turn meet with the police department and the chief of staff in order to consider what action the government would take as a result of the march. It is believed that the Tsar had learnt of the march by nightfall of Saturday 8th January, 1905. However, the following morning, the 150,000 group of peaceful marchers, marched in columns towards the Winter Palace – they were singing hymns and carried religious icons. The march occurred at four different points but they never made it to the Winter Palace – the troops fired upon the crowds. Recent historical estimates suggest that around 200 people were killed and 800 were injured. Now, even though the Tsar was not present at any of the sites where the protestors were, he was held responsible for what was known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ to the point that his nickname became ‘Nicholas the Bloody’.
What I mean to show you by outlining the above, is that the Romanov family and their rule was not so black and white. The only real ‘aspect’ of the rule that was briefly touched upon within the novel, and then forgotten about, is the rumour that the mother was having an affair with Rasputin. But it was ‘solved’ by one conversation between the mother and Nastya, which basically went like this:
“mummy, the bad soldiers outside told me that you were boning the magician? like, i personally don’t believe that you would do that to dad, but like i want to know, just for me. please”
“oh sweetheart, there was never any sex. rasputin took my life energy in order to heal your brother.’
Very superficial, very ‘here’s the problem, here’s the solution’ kind of thing.
I do understand that the author wanted to show the ‘humanness’ of both the Romanovs and the Bolshevik soldiers. Which is also demonstrated, but the concept of individual agency can be a pretty contentious one in that there is so many grey areas – ‘soldiers just obeying orders, etc. – but again, it’s not executed very well. Zash literally shoots Nastya to kill (only one shot, which he emphasises, not knowing if she would survive) and that entire situation is smoothed over by the end as Zash goes with her and Alexei to find Doschkin and Nastya forgives him because that would be what her father wanted. Like, I get that it was supposed to create a conversation about complicitness and forgiveness which is great – but Nastya is a 16 year old girl who just got shot by her love interest and then the story ends with her and Zash staying together? Like, isn’t that too perfect of a characterisation? He fucking shot you. Wouldn’t there be some sort of like, feeling something against him? Hurt? Low-level bitterness that he was complicit in the execution of your entire family? I don’t know, this hurts my brain.
I think I’ve spelt ‘Doschkin’ wrong but I don’t have the book with me at the moment, so whoops.
I think my overall thoughts at the moment, is that this is a ‘good’ book. An average one, which isn’t bad, but I really wanted it to wow me because it sounded so interesting. I rate Romanov by Nadine Brandes a 3 out of 5 stars. Again, not a bad rating, but it didn’t really give me anything and I don’t think I would ever re-read it in the future. And I don’t think I would recommend it unless people had an interest in Russian history.
I think I’m going to stop here, because I have written way more than I expected!
Until next time, happy reading!
All the love,