Author: Nadine Brandes
Published By: Thomas Nelson Fiction
Expected Publication: 7th May (sorry!)
Bechdel Test: FAIL-There are several named female characters in this book, Anastasia and her sisters, but when they talk to each other, it’s generally concerning the men around them, their brother, their father, or the Bolshevik soldiers.
I received this book from Thomas Nelson Fiction, through Netgalley UK, in exchange for a honest review.
As always thank you to Thomas Nelson, and Netgalley for allowing me to read this book.
I loved Nadine Brandes’ previous book, Fawkes when I read it last year and as soon as I saw what her next book was about, I knew I had to read it, I love the Romanovs and find that whole period of history completely fascinating. I will admit that I didn’t love this quite as much as I loved Fawkes? The first half lags a lot (though it does really pick up in the second half) and it’s kind of light on the magic, it’s historical fantasy but definitely leaning more towards the historical than the fantasy, which is fine, but I personally would have liked it if it had had a little more magic. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
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 guess I have to start off by saying that the main thing that bothered me about this book was once again, the pacing. I said it about Fawkes, and the same is true here. It starts off with a little prelude, which I found really gripping, but then the entirety of the first half of the books is focused on the Romanovs in exile before the execution, and so the whole time you know what’s coming and you’re just waiting for it to happen. Things definitely pick up after the execution takes place and the author’s imaginings of the events kicks in, but you’re already about 20 chapters into the book and I’m not sure everyone will have the patience to get through the exile section to the exciting stuff. I’d also say that the chapters were a bit overlong in the beginning. The transition in speed just feels quite jarring as well, because you go from the mundanity of exile to action packed train chases, it felt like you were reading two different books and I think if the magic and everything from the second half had been woven in earlier, it wouldn’t have been quite so jarring.
I loved the writing though, I think Nadine Brandes has a wonderful way with words and I could honestly just wrap myself up in her prose quite happily, so that was a definite plus with this book, it makes it much easier to love a book when you enjoy the author’s writing style. There were some uncorrected proof errors, but I’m sure those will have been fixed in the final version of the book.
Nastya was a great main character, she’s fierce and incredibly loyal and loves her family so so much & loves a bit of mischief. I thought she was really easy to relate to and I loved how she was able to stay so positive even in such a terrible situation. I don’t know what the real life Anastasia was like, but I loved Nadine Brandes’ rendering of her. I also really loved Alexei? He’s so sassy and adorable and their relationship was absolutely everything to me! All the familial relationships were amazing, it was clear how close the Romanov family were and how much they cared for each other.
I liked the magic system but I felt like it could have been utilised a lot more? Basically, there are people called spell masters, who are able to make something called spell ink, and people use this ink to write spells which have different effects depending on the word written. It’s very light on the magic, Anastasia mainly uses healing spells for her brother and I would have just liked a little more. I also wished that the magic’s connection to the Romanov bloodline had been explored more, because I didn’t really understand it. The limits of the magic system aren’t really established well either, so the author kind of uses it as deus ex machina at the end of the book, and stretches it a bit beyond belief.
The historical aspects were dealt with well, the author is very accurate to history and even when she bends things a little, they do have a grounding in the actual history. It does romanticise that actual Romanov family a lot, and brush over some of Nikolai’s failings as a Tsar which is understandable given that the book is narrated by his daughter and she wouldn’t see him that way, but a bit problematic for people who do not know much about the royal family because they’ll come out with the idea of him as this all caring Tsar which is just not true. His wife Alexandra is presented as this weak, sickly woman and I also took issue with that because again, no. Alexandra was despised by the Russian people and had a lot of influence over her husband. The Bolsheviks weren’t great either, but there were legitimate reasons behind the Revolution and this book kind of casts them as Mean Bolsheviks being mean for no reason, which yeah, no. Rasputin is also kind of glossed over, he was a lot worse than the book makes him out to be. It does also assume prior knowledge of the Romanovs on the part of the reader, which is fine for me, because I did the Romanovs as part of my History A-Level so I don’t need the background context, but readers coming fresh to it might not necessarily understand all the ins and outs of why the Romanovs are in exile in the first place.
I wasn’t entirely convinced about the romance between Zash and Nastya. I think because Zash felt kind of flat at the start of the book anyway and he only really gets fleshed out in the second half but also because the whole prisoner/captor romance thing is very iffy to me? I mean I liked that Nastya struggled with that too, but I still felt like I couldn’t get fully on board with them because of that.
We do get some disability rep with Alexei and his haemophilia, and though I can’t speak to how accurate it was, it’s a great thing to see a disabled character in a fantasy. I will say that there was a lot of suspension of disbelief in the latter half of the book, that pain relieving spells would help him that much when he was pretty much bleeding out and also the initial events that lead to the second half of the book require some suspension of disbelief on the haemophilia part as well, but it is generally handled well.
In terms of content warnings, there is a lot of blood and a lot of death and violence, but I think that’s about it. I very much appreciated that the dog, Joy, did not die, because animal death is not something I handle very well, though their other two dogs do (that is also true to history, Joy survived and became a pet of the British Royal Family).
I thought the ending was really lovely, even if it did take some deus ex machina workings to get there, it was a nice happy for now ending and it fitted with the story, not a happily ever after, but with enough hope that things might get better for the characters in the future.
Overall, this story was a decent reimagining of the story of the Romanovs and whilst I did have issues with it here and there, I thought it was generally well executed and enjoyable and I hope Nadine Brandes does another historical fantasy in the future!
My Rating: 3.5/5
My next review will be of Finale, the final book in the Caraval trilogy by Stephanie Garber, which I should have for you by the end of the week, or the beginning of next week as I’m almost done with it.