Nadine Brandes's ROMANOV -- Jen's Review
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Thanks to NetGalley and TNZ Fiction for the free review copy of this beautiful book! Listen to our interview with Nadine Brandes.
If you Google “books about the Romanovs,” you’ll be overwhelmed by the results. Our (my!) fascination with this royal Russian family seems to be unending—it’s triggered, perhaps, by the family’s tragic end and by the shift it represents: the ending of the royal lifestyle in Russia and by the beginning of modern Communist rule (which began with the Bolshevik revolution).
Nadine Brandes’s new novel Romanov, out on May 7, falls nicely within the tradition of historical novels with one slant or another on the Romanov legend, and particularly on the stories surrounding the possible survival of Anastasia. Brandes’s young adult novel adds magic to the legends, building on the real-life involvement of Rasputin: in this tale, the Bolsheviks want to banish not only the alleged tyranny of ex-Tsar Nikolai and his family but also the place of magic in Russia.
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!