Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“After Rasputin, the people grew too suspicious of spell masters, convinced they could control minds. So the revolution began—forcing Papa off the throne and hunting down spell masters, one by one.”
When the Romanov family is transported from exile in Tobolsk to a new prison in Ekaterinburg, Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov is entrusted by her father, the deposed tsar, with a family heirloom which she must hide from the Bolsheviks at all costs. The magical Matryoshka doll was made by the great spell master Dochkin, and may hold the key to saving the Romanovs, as well as preventing Dochkin from being forcibly recruited into the Red Army, or murdered. But Commandant Yurovsky will stop at nothing to find the legendary spell master, and only one of his artefacts can uncover his secret hiding place. In Ekaterinburg, the days count down steadily towards July 16, 1918, as the Romanovs try to win over their captors, and live in hope of rescue by the White Army.
Nadine Brandes introduces a magical twist into the ever-popular story of the Romanov princesses and their grisly fate. Grigori Rasputin is an off-page character, blamed for much, the catalyst for many events, but never actually seen. However, he is not the only magician in this story. Thanks to his actions, Russia has turned on all its spell masters, demanding that they serve the state, or die. Spell work has been responsible for keeping Tsarevich Alexei alive despite his hemophilia, but at a terrible price. Nastya herself dreams of becoming a spell master, but with Rasputin gone, there is no one to teach her, and the only spell she knows will ease her brother’s pain, but not heal his injuries. Brandes does an excellent job of imagining and depicting relationships within the family, and especially the interactions between siblings, though she mainly focuses on Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.
Brandes includes two romantic subplots for the Romanov sisters in captivity; Maria falls for a Bolshevik soldier named Ivan, while Nastya tries to keep at bay growing feelings for his secretive comrade, Zash. The tension in the romance between Ivan and Maria felt a little bit more fraught, so when I got to the “What’s True” section at the end of the book, I was not terribly surprised to discover that Maria’s flirtation with Ivan was based on true events, while Zash is wholly imaginary character, invented for his instrumental role in the second half of the story.
For the most part, the first half of the book, which takes place before the fateful night of July 16, hews closely to the history of what we know about the Romanov’s captivity, with a few magical and romantic twists. However, nearly half the books takes place after that night, and it is here that Brandes gallops off into the realm of pure fantasy, with mixed results. Part of the romance of the Romanov survival myth in imagining what came next, and the reader’s enjoyment of the latter part of the story will likely hinge on how well Brandes’ vision accords with their own ideas.
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