Romanov by Nadine Brandes
From Goodreads: 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 saving herself and her family 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 has only dabbled in magic, but it doesn’t frighten her half as much as her growing attraction to 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.
Thanks to Book Box Club for sending this one in their Seize the Crown box in May. I actually buddy-read this with a bunch of friends, so I read it in little chunks for the most part, although as ever, towards the end I abandoned that and just read a huge amount of pages in one sitting.
Romanov is a bit of a strange book to wrap your head around. I’ve read my fair share of historical fiction, and a few novels which were historical fantasy. Y’know, books like The Infernal Devices series and Something Strange and Deadly which are set during specific time periods in history and have a lot of magic going on. Sometimes there’s a few historical characters or facts thrown in there, such as in Stalking Jack the Ripper, but they lean a lot more on the fantasy side of things.
This was different. The book is based on real people who once existed, but it changes a lot of the facts of what happened to them by incorporating magic. It’s odd, not necessarily in a bad way or anything. Just more distinctive because it does this. I guess the closest I’ve read to something like it is 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which is a time-travel book about someone going back in time to stop the assassination of JFK. The magic in Romanov sort of threw me for a moment, in all honesty. I liked the inclusion of it, and I eventually enjoyed it once I got my head around it, but for a while it was just a little hard to wrap my head around. I do think the magic could have been explained a bit better though. As much as I enjoyed having it in there and seeing how it changed the story of the Romanovs, I did struggle a bit with it because I don’t feel it was explained enough. Sometimes things happened in the plot because of magic and I ended up confused or just had to shrug it off because I didn’t quite understand the rules of how magic functioned in it.
The novel starts after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, which I felt was a little disappointing. I could have done with more of the groundwork at the start. We get the immediate enmity between the Romanov family and the Bolshevik soldiers, but we don’t get much of a sense of what has happened prior or even that much about the family themselves. We see glimpses of the former tsar and his wife [aka the main character’s parents] and her sisters, and there’s reasonable depth to their relationship, but I think showing us them acting as a family before all of this stuff happened might have been even more eye-opening. It also made me struggle a bit with Nastya’s voice. She defends her father and mother a lot from some of the rumours and insults, both out loud and in her head. Unfortunately, however, we never get to see Nikolai II acting as a tsar, so we just have to kind of take her word for it that he’s wise and just and kind. History books, if I remember correctly from my old GCSE days, often call him somewhat incompetent, so I’m not sure what to think here. Obviously, that doesn’t mean I side with the Bolsheviks here at all, and I get that a lot of this has probably been done to show Nastya can be a somewhat unreliable narrator, but yeah, the starting point means we get a lot of information and backstory told to us, rather than shown.
This also meant that some of the nuances are lost. Again, I get that Nastya is an unreliable narrator. She’s been born and raised as part of a royal family, and so she’s always been in a position of very high privilege. Again, I am in no way condoning the actions of the Bolsheviks, but it felt like the book didn’t do much to address the issues behind why the revolution happened in the first place. I know this is just me probably wanting something the author never intended to put on the page, but it felt like that nuance was important. The book does go some way to showing some of the poverty going on in Russia during this period, but obviously it is very limited. I guess my problem here is that Nastya is pretty naive about it, and it isn’t really ever addressed in a satisfying way. She believes her father to be good and kind, and poverty is bad and they could do better, but that’s about it. The book doesn’t go much into exploring some of the anger of the people really, and because of this it forces the readers to think of the Romanov family as wholly good. Again, not saying they in any way deserved what happened to them, but at the same time I felt like the book could have done more to make it less of an absolutism. The Bolsheviks got a lot more depth to them, and I’m glad they weren’t depicted as total monsters, but yes, exploring and addressing some of the motivations behind the revolution besides the occasional angry glare or whispered comment could have really pushed this book higher for me.
Character-wise, I thought it was a pretty decent read. Nastya was an entertaining and incisive main character, and I loved seeing her with her brother, Alexei. The Bolsheviks were rather more complex, but I thought a reasonable amount had been done to show them as complex characters with human traits, not just as mindless drones doing what they were told.
The plot did go in quite a quirky direction, thanks to the aforementioned magic, but I thought it was gripping in many places and the pacing never truly dragged. There were moments that were slow, but I never got so bored I put the book down early or anything. And there was naturally a lot of tension to keep the reader interested. It sounds odd, but I think the historical-ness [sorry, I am so sorry] worked in Romanov‘s favour here. I’m sure a lot of people who pick up the book will know what happened to the family, and so from the very first page, that sense of danger feels incredibly close at hand. Every interaction between the family and the Bolsheviks had me on the edge of my seat. It’s like when you can see something awful is about to happen but can’t stop it. I kept wanting the historical ending to be wrong. Like I said, the magic did throw the plot in a very different direction, but it still stuck reasonably close, at least for the first part.
Overall, I gave Romanov a 7/10 stars. I was a bit frustrated by the sometimes unreliable narrator and I think the book could have had more depth if it started a little earlier than it did. However, it was intriguing and unique, and because it followed some of the facts from history, I did spend a lot of time on the edge of my seat.
Has anyone else read this book already or plans to? What do you all think of it? Let me know in the comment section down below ❤