Three stars, a lot of dead weight filler pages, unfulfilled and superfluous supernatural elements and a eye-catching, lovely cover pretty much make up...moreThree stars, a lot of dead weight filler pages, unfulfilled and superfluous supernatural elements and a eye-catching, lovely cover pretty much make up the basis for The Last Romanov. I am highly disappointed in this historical fiction jaunt into one of the most interesting times in Russian history. There was a lot of potential left unfulfilled from this book - it could be a much tighter, engrossing read, but as is, the ARC leaves much to be desired. Full review to follow.(less)
You may not know Matryona Grigorievna by her first two names, but you will recognize her last, infamous...moreRead This Review & More Like It On My Blog!
You may not know Matryona Grigorievna by her first two names, but you will recognize her last, infamous name: Rasputina. The daughter of either Russia's most famous eccentric and healer or her most prolific sham, depending on who is asked, Masha's unique and by turns sad, very strange and moving story of life after her father's abrupt (and excessively violent) murder is a sure-to-please strong-female-character-powered novel. Enchantments was exactly what I wanted from another Russian historical fiction set about the same time (The Last Romanov) and didn't get: a fresh, compelling point of view, set during a popular and dangerous time period (the fall of the Romanov dynasty), a slight hint of romance that doesn't overpower character and/or plot development and (hopefully) amply furnished with enough accuracy to keep the tension high and the audiences interest consistently piqued. Veteran author Kathryn Harrison gracefully executes all these disparate parts to their utmost, with clear and tactile imagery and compelling prose. This is a darker novel in tone, for obvious and unavoidable reasons, but the intensity of the setting, the crackling tension and the characters desperation make for a moderately fast read.
I enjoyed almost everything there was to Enchantments. I did find the plot a bit lacking in some extended areas, but this is a novel that is carried by the strength of its cast. Harrison has a dab hand for foreshadowing ("There are those people who cannot be transplanted from one age to the next."), incrementally building up tension, and in setting up crucial, expected scenes without veering into predictability. Though the fate of the Romanov family is well known, Harrison makes their years-long journey to the House of Special Purpose compelling and touching. The unique POV perspective distinguishes this novel, as does the fact that Enchantments is more concerned about tsarevich Alexei's final days than either his brood of sisters or his parents. This is one of those historical fiction novels that makes a reader want to know more about the source material. As a ardent history major and freak, I was already well-versed in a lot of Romanov and Bolshevik Revolution lore, but Harrison's thoroughly developed and rounded versions of these real, flawed people reignited a previous cultural fascination with Russia and her Imperial family - I was Googling away on a vast array of subjects, people and events that had impact on this story.
As I intimated earlier, it really is the characters that make this particular so compulsively readable. While Harrison sticks to facts for the bulk of her work, Masha's romantic entanglement with young Alexei provides a light spot in an overwhelming sad life. I appreciate the light hand used for the relationship - it felt natural and right for both characters, while not overpowering the more dramatic and worldly plotlines of the novel. The author also avoids the issue of characterizing Rasputin outside of his role as a doting father - while his life obviously impacts his daughters, Harrison never takes a side in the debate about his role as healer or heretic. Masha, obviously, believes in the power of her mystic father, and her belief is compelling but not convincing. Worshiped by some, reviled by others, but only truly understood by his devoted eldest daughter, Rasputin's magnetic pull is in evidence largely in absentia and its continued affect on Masha's life after his death.
To get a bit less positive about the novel, I will say that I found the shifts between the past and the present to be a bit disorientating. The flashbacks themselves are well-timed and chock full of historical detail and data without weighing down the overall plot and increasing intensity. Even when the expected end comes for Alexei, OTMA and the Imperial pair, Masha's dispassionate voice manages to convey her deep sorrow while keeping her emotional distance. I found the last part of the novel — with Masha apart from the Romanovs — lacked the dynamic of the previous chapters. I struggled slightly through the later, introspection-heavy pages devoid of interaction with the other players. But despite those few issues, there isn't much to malign here in Enchantments.
The unique, fresh approach of Rasputin's daughter, the finely and intricately drawn backdrop of Imperialist Russia, the wonderfully realized characters all made for a great historical fiction novel. People now tend to view Rasputin with the benefit of hindsight, often confusing the man with whatever he did or did not to to aid the downfall of the Tsars. Kathryn Harrison's Enchantments, through the eyes and ideas of his tale-spinning daughter, is singular in that it shows Russia's Mad Monk as a person, as a dad even, to great effect. Every choice Masha makes is influenced by her father and his desires for her and reading her life story as imagined by this author is a nice piece of historical escapism.
Robin Bridges brings a whole new life to 1880's Russia with her novel about a young, aristocratic, female necromancer. This is a novel that was anothe...moreRobin Bridges brings a whole new life to 1880's Russia with her novel about a young, aristocratic, female necromancer. This is a novel that was another slow-starter for me. I was mildly interested and intrigued by Bridges' magically fantastical and dangerous world set in St. Petersburg, but I wasn't well and truly hooked until late in the game - when I was about 300 pages into the novel and less than a hundred from the end. With a disquieting introduction featuring and honing in on the young Katerina Alexandra Maria von Holstein-Gottorp, Duchess of Oldenburg, The Gathering Storm sets its dark, magical tone right from the very first paragraph. With revenants, ghosts, vampires and creatures of the night stalking through the cold nights of Mother Russia, only Katerina has the dark curse able to control them, and try to figure out where all the zombiefied soldiers are coming from - and why they are being created.
Actually beginning eight years after the introduction with Katiya learning her dark powers of reanimating the dead, The Gathering Storm is set during the reign of Tsar Alexander III, known to his people as "The Bear." In this version of historical Russia, both the Light and Dark Courts of Faerie are at play within the Imperial Court of Alexander Romanov. The Imperial Tsar's own wife Dagmar of Denmark (though renamed as Marie Feodorovna) is actually a Light Faerie and controls that aspect of power in Russia. Alexander's own brother Vladimir married, shockingly, into the Dark Court fae: his wife, the Grand Duchess Miechen, has a obvious rivalry with the Empress. Not at all surprisingly, caught between these two women, these two factions, the Russian Court seethes with intrigue, betrayal and. . . magic. I loved the new integration of the faerie within the folds of the historical Russian aristocracy; I just wished it had been more detailed and fleshed out what the roles of the faerie were for, besides fomenting drama. Added to the tensions of the distant/enemy fae courts constantly around her and her family, Katerina has to contend with a witchy classmate at her boarding school named Elena, a princess of the country of Montenegro. And as the reader learns and Elena demonstrates, the fae aren't the only supernatural creatures populating 19th century Russia or its nobility. The author created numerous species/sub-species of vampire to contend with the human population as well. From the moth-like veshtizas, to the upyri, wampyr and even the supreme form of them all: the Vladiki - blood-drinkers descended from Vlad Dracul of Wallachia himself - Bridges has her own, fresh interpretation of vampirism. It's a very dense and complicated mythology that the author has created for her world, but it works.
I'm still a little puzzled by The Winter Palace, even about three weeks after finishing it. It purports itself to be a novel revolving around the epic...moreI'm still a little puzzled by The Winter Palace, even about three weeks after finishing it. It purports itself to be a novel revolving around the epic story of Catherine the Great, known originally as Sophie, during her first years in the Russian, and Romanov, court. What is perplexing is that the story is purportedly about Catherine, but not told from her perspective and even as just Sophie, the character is absent for much of the narrative. Additionally, the main power player and the most eye-catching character is not Catherine, even when she comes to power later on, but the Empress preceding her on the throne: Elizaveta Petrovna. "A Tale of Catherine the Great" just doesn't seem to gel with the story within the cover. I do wish the novel had actually been from the view of Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt-Zerbst, and not her tongue or gazette Barbara, though that is no fault of the former's. I was just always more interested in the real, recreated personages than fabricated one which was the most important. It's just a shame that Catherine was outshone by adoptive mother of her weakling, Prussian-loving husband.
That is not to say I didn't like Barbara, or as she's usually called in the book Varvara Nikolayevna. With a title of "ward of the crown" for the Empress Elizabeth, Varvara is little more than a beggar or an orphan with a glorified title. And in the Court of Peter the Great's daughter, "Life is a game and every player is cheating." As a hidden spy, a "tongue", a "gazette", she is hard-edged and mercenary, interfering only when she knows she won't be detected. It's easy to feel sympathy for the young Polish girl in the Russian Court initially: sent there by her father after her mother's death for security, it turned out to be the least secure place her unwitting father could have sent her. She's lonely, ignored, outcast so it's easy, understandable even, that Varvara turns to secrets and whispers in order to assert some control, any kind of power in her powerless life. It's a perfect fit: the little mousy Pole that no one saw stumbles into espionage and thereby becomes important. She may wear off any true likeability the character progresses the harder Varvara becomes, but she is never not interesting to read when at court, scheming.
When Varvara learns she is not as important and powerful and protected as she had assumed, an unwanted marriage is manipulated on her. By crossing someone she ought not have, Varvara learns the only place she is truly happy is at the palace, trying to scheme Sophie, one day to be Catherine, into Elizabeth's and her son Peter's, arms. The book grew quite a bit duller when Varvara is forced from the court and into her marriage as Madame Malinka. The exile seemed to wear on for far too long and it was much duller reading than the high-risk and cutthroat Court life. I loved the tensions and secrets at Elizabeth's, and eventually Peter and Catherine's and then just Catherine's, courts. The book seethed with intrigue and distrust on all sides: from tensions between old name nobles and new name nobles based on ascension due to birth/money or merit, to the obvious distrust between Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter, to the hidden machinations of Varvara and Bestushev. Peter himself is a source of much discontent: from Elizabeth's disapproval of his Prussian affections to Catherine's dismissal of him as worthy, he does not lead a charmed life. He never seems present in the way the strong, if distasteful, woman are. He doesn't react to his wife's vicious rumors, or question the paternity of his heir: I hoped for more from the only male Romanov of the novel. Peter III is much more a tertiary character than anything else, and is interesting for his impact on both his adoptive mother and his wife.