The book opens after Nikolai’s abdication, when the family has been moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. Anastasia, the 16-year-old narrator, is known as Shvibzik, or imp, and her nickname reveals a great deal about her character. Nastya is a strong-willed and mischievous trickster who enjoys entertaining her family to maintain a sense of normality and playing pranks on the soldiers who are their captors. Brandes does a brilliant job establishing the strong bonds within this family, which includes Nastya’s parents, her three sisters, and her 13-year-old brother Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. Nastya’s father, Nikolai, acts with a humility surprising for his prior role, and he urges Nastya to honor life, to find forgiveness, and to prioritize the Russian people. Alexei was also a strong character for me, dealing with the pain of his hemophilia and the loss of his destiny as tsar with bravery and grit.
The world building is just great, and Brandes’s vision of magic centers on spell ink, a rare substance that allows spell masters and their apprentices (like Nastya) to “write” their spells as a way of enacting them. This grounding of magic works well both to expand the story of the Romanovs and to anchor it in practical concerns that occupy much of Nastya’s thoughts.
Brandes telegraphs clearly a romance with a Bolshevik soldier who serves as one of the family’s guards; it took me a while to warm to the authenticity of the match, but eventually (no spoilers here!) I appreciated the complexity of its development. Successful for me, from the beginning, is Nastya’s character arc. Watching her struggle, with her family, to acclimate herself to her new living situation, to accept that her family does not have control over their own destiny, is quite moving. Her constant attempts to be worthy of her former title and of her father’s care enhance this already-nuanced character.
The novel’s basis in history allows those familiar with the legend to appreciate the character development and the addition of magic and those unfamiliar with the stories to feel firmly grounded in what happened. (An excellent Author’s Note is also helpful!) While I don’t want to give anything away, I think that the way Brandes played with the mythology surrounding Anastasia is incredibly smart. This strong YA novel bridging history and fantasy is a great addition to the collection of works studying the royal family. Look for Nadine Brandes’s Romanov on May 7!
“It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor. When she told her friends in New York about this curious historical anomaly and the pervasive ethnic bias, they were incredulous at the thought that the friendly, well-mannered Japanese they knew could ever think she was somehow criminal, lazy, filthy, or aggressive—the negative stereotypical traits of Koreans in Japan.”
Upon beginning this novel, I was immediately swept away by the tender, compelling story of the young Sunja, child of Hoonie and Yangjin, and their family's challenges as they worked to make their living by running a boarding house for people in the small village where they lived in Korea. When Sunja found herself in a position of dishonor and shame, I was moved by her resolution and her courage. As she makes the move to Japan, the story shifts into an exploration of Korean life in Japan. The epic novel moves through generations of Koreans in Japan, and Lee highlights the systemic oppression faced by Koreans in Japan, moving from the early 1900s all the way to present day.
I loved the way the novel showed the complexities of identity and the weight of family. I also found the treatment of Koreans in Japan both appalling and a bit surprising -- I found that it was something about which I knew very little. I loved the way that Lee showed the various reactions and feelings toward the Japanese and life in Japan.
I'm kind of thankful that I didn't realize how long the book was or how many generations would be covered -- I might have felt a little intimidated, or I might have put it off for another time. Instead, I knew nothing about it other than what I know about current day pachinko parlors in Japan, and I found myself wrapped up in the complex story of this family and their struggles to understand their identity (both as individuals and as a collective group). It was a phenomenal read.
By tracking the pathways of so many individuals, this novel spans the scope of human experience, and Lee explores the common threads within that experience. “He was suffering, and in a way, he could manage that; but he had caused others to suffer, and he did not know why he had to live now and recall the series of terrible choices that had not looked so terrible at the time. Was that how it was for most people?” Although this thought came from a more minor character, it incapsulates the scope of this powerful narrative and its examination of human experience. Such a profound novel.
This was definitely one of the best reads of 2019 so far for me, and one of the most impactful books I've read in a long time.
Nira lives with her parents and her grandmother in Canada—her family escaped from Guyana in search of safety and security but had to leave without their money. As in many novels about the children of immigrants, Nira walks the line between appreciating her parents’ culture and yearning to blend in with her classmates at her new school. As the only brown girl, Nira feels both incredibly conspicuous and tragically invisible, discounted by everyone but her best friend Emily. Her one escape is her music. Though her parents have decided that she will become a doctor and therefore needs to focus only on her studies, Nira convinced them to buy her a used trumpet, which she taught herself to play via YouTube. When Nira plays, she expresses all of the love, conflict, and confusion that dominate her life.
A brilliant student, Nira vies always to meet the high expectations of her family. She always, however, falls short. After her family emigrated, her father’s brother Raj brought his family to Canada as well, taking advantage of a new loophole that allowed him to escape with his bank account intact. The brothers’ relationship is one of constant comparison: of belongings, of ambition, of their daughters’ academics. Nira’s cousin Farah attends a private school where she blends in with the “Farahbots,” other wealthy girls who share their heritage and culture. Anchoring both girls is Grandma, one of my favorite characters. Grandma is wise, funny, and realistic about the challenges Nira faces as she struggles to find her place. Most of the time, Grandma sits back and lets her family figure things out for themselves, but when she intervenes, she’s a “puppet master” who pulls all the right strings (loc. 664).
Though Nira fights against the superficial judgments of others, she does herself fall prey to judging based on appearances. Much of the novel involves Nira learning to peel back layers, to understand that everyone has secret fears and hopes. Her friendship with Emily changes as they begin to invite others to her group—much to Nira’s chagrin—and Nira must deal with feeling pushed out of the relationships that anchor her. Emily becomes close to McKenzie, a popular girl whose constant misunderstandings about Nira—she’s Hindi, she’s Muslim, she’s from India, and SO many more—and Nira can’t understand how Emily can look past McKenzie’s prejudiced behavior. Nira’s love for music leads her to know Noah, a popular boy in the jazz band. Nira decided early on that Noah is out of her league, so she suppresses her crush in favor of being his friend. Eventually, Farah (despite Nira’s best efforts) joins this friend group, and Nira must strive to figure otu where she fits in this new arrangement of five.
All of these elements are made essential by Deen’s writing: even when, as a reader, I became frustrated with characters, I understood their perspective. Deen crafts characters of such complexity that we understand both why Nira wants new, name-brand clothes and why the entire idea is anathema to her parents. We understand why Grandma insists on making tea in every situation and why her use of sugar in the tea signals the kind of situation she’s dealing with. We understand why Emily is Nira’s best friend, why Nira is jealous of their new friends, and why Emily is insisting that Nira be more understanding. Most of all, we understand both why Nira desires so strongly to please her parents and why she just can’t give up on music. Emily tells Nira early on that her playing reminds her of Neil—not Louis—Armstrong because when Nira plays, “[she] make[s] [Emily] think of moonlight and defying gravity” (loc. 74).
Through the book, Nira becomes a keeper of secrets, both her own and others’, and each secret “steals the stars from the sky and the light from the moon” (loc. 1538). As a reader in on those secrets, I felt every moment of Nira’s story, of her imperfections and her pursuit of growth, of her moments of being an outsider and of belonging, of seeing her path clearly and being pushed off of that path. Watching her figure out herself and those around her is a journey I won’t forget, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order Natasha Deen’s In the Key of Nira Ghani immediately. You won’t regret it.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.