Review: The Last Romanov

With many thanks to Netgalley and Sourcebooks Landmark, we were given the opportunity to read The Last Romanov before its April 2012 release.  The Royal Romanovs have long been the fascination of many, as their extravagance and naiveté ultimately led to their horrific murders in 1918.  The story is a tragedy of enormous proportions, starting with a Tsar who could not see the political upheaval that threatened both his country and his family.

This account follows the life of Darya Borodina Spiridova (fictional); a woman whose devotion to the Russian Imperial Family brought her riches, love, and eventually, a haunted existence.  The bulk of the story takes place during the reign of Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, during which Darya is a young woman.  Darya’s charge is the Tsar and Tsarina’s sickly son Alexei, the heir to the throne.  Alexei’s days are plagued by hemophilia, a bleeding disease that consistently threatens the child’s life.  Darya was largely responsible for the boy’s wellbeing, including keeping his disease at bay.

The book’s quirky turn is that Darya is magical.  She has one opal eye, which allows her to heal the sick, sense danger, and see people’s true characters.  When threatened, she tastes ash.  If hurt, she simply heals herself.  When angered, she could scare the wits out of just about anyone.

Her attempts, however, to heal the ailing Alexei were not enough to please the Royal couple, which led to the introduction of the infamous Rasputin.  The “Mad Monk” was reputed to be a mystic, and a faith healer.  With his calming words, he could stem Alexei’s affliction at a moment’s notice.  (Skeptics have long maintained that he did not heal the boy, but rather hypnotized him into a calmer state, which would diminish the symptoms of the disease.)  Regardless, he became an integral character of the book, as repugnant as he was.  Darya wasn’t a fan, but the two eventually shared an odd mutual respect.

In the book, Darya witnessed the murder of the Romanov family.  She maintained afterward that Alexei survived the execution, and she believed this to be true until the ripe old age of 104.  It was just a matter of finding him.  Her only goal in life was to put Alexei where he belonged: on the throne.  Hence, The Last Romanov.  Over the course of her life, Darya became an eccentric and formidable character, one who readers likely won’t forget.

While I’m always enthusiastic about reading stories about the Romanovs, this story was a bit of a reach for me.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it; it was very creative.  It was a good mix of historical fiction and fantasy.  What left me a little perplexed was why Darya had to have special powers.  For me, it made the story teeter between a really good read, and a fantasy from the YA category.  The story of the Romanovs is fascinating enough; it doesn’t need a new character who has otherworldly talents (including a secret past).  Truly, during such an opulent time, the protagonist’s powers were almost… superfluous.  The story didn’t need more magic.  Rasputin took care of that.  3 stars.

Another challenge can’t possibly hurt!

Random House Canada has set the challenge to read one of the following Historical Fiction novels by February 28, 2012. Once done, we’re entered to win a snazzy little gift. Seeing as how many of the titles are already on the TBR list, why not!?

Here’s the list as posted by Random House Canada: (and no, even though we’ve already read The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay we can’t submit it, must actually read it between now and end of February.) 🙂 Them the rules!!

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak (Available January 3. Check out the video trailer!)
The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich
The Salt Road by Jane Johnson
Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
Anything in the Outlander or Lord John series by Diana Gabaldon (If you haven’t met Jamie Fraser yet, are you ever in for a treat!)

Review: Caleb’s Crossing

If you want to become smitten with the brilliant Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing is the perfect book to choose.  Inspired by a true story, Caleb’s Crossing follows the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wopanaak Native who “crosses” to Christianity, and “crosses” to the life of an English scholar in the mid 1600’s.  The story is actually narrated by Bethia Mayfield (a fictional character), an incredibly bright, hardworking and honorable girl, who desperately wishes for the levels of education that are only afforded to the opposite sex.  She therefore lives vicariously through her father’s ministry, her brother’s education, and her dear friend Caleb’s crossings.  Her mastery of Caleb’s native tongue, of Latin, philosophy, and of the classics is simply from what she is able to overhear.

“How I could have astonished him, and my brother too, even then, had I opened my mouth and ventured to say, in Wompaontoaonk, that I had troubled to know them; that I knew them, in some particulars, better than father, who was their missionary and their minister.  But as I have sat down here, I had learned early the value of silence, and I did not lightly give away the state of myself.  So I got up from the fire then, and made myself busy, wetting yeast and flour for a sponge to use in the next day’s bread.”

You quickly become attached to Bethia, as she pines for the life of an academic, only to be offered the more common stations of “the fairer sex.”  She narrates the story with affection and longing, as she follows her brother and Caleb from their home island to grammar school, and eventually to what is now known as Harvard.   To help pay for her brother’s education, she works as a servant at the college, and manages to find new depths of knowledge, true love, and advanced levels of faith.  As she grows into a remarkable young woman, Caleb becomes the first Native American graduate of Harvard College.   His crossing has a price, however, and it’s for the reader to decide whether it was worth it.

From the early colonial history of Martha’s Vineyard, to the ministry that was devoted to turning Native Americans to Christian worshippers, Geraldine’s account is full of remarkable detail.  It’s impossible to summarize her story in one review!  More than once, I was struck by her prose, which more often than not read like poetry rather than a novel.  You’ll love her characters, and will be swept away as you read how they cherish learning, friendship, faith, and nature.  I’m sorry the story had to come to an end.

4 enthusiastic stars!

Review: Incantation

Incantation is a love story….a historical tragedy….and a whirlwind of a novel where a ‘secret’ is revealed, and you find yourself waiting to see what happens with bated breath.  The story revolves around Estrella deMadrigal, a lovely teen who lives during a harsh reality when Jews who refused conversion to Christianity suffered unimaginable consequences.   She’s a girl who lives in total admiration of her family, including her severe and immensely wise grandparents, her creative mother, and her brother who is studying to become a priest.  Her best friend Catalina, a question mark for the reader from the start, is her confidante, until she allows her true colors to shine through, thus confirming all suspicions.

The setting of the novel is horrific from the start, as books are burned, Jews are forced to wear red circles, neighbors are rewarded for turning one another in, and persecution abounds.  Estrella quickly moves from naïve to gravely aware, as she’s forced to cope with astonishing religious intolerance.

At only 166 pages, this book felt incredibly brief.  Alice Hoffman’s writing is rich as usual, and she somehow manages to develop the characters in a very short span.  I still found myself wishing that the book was longer though, as I wanted to know more about Estrella’s neighbors, her love, and her future.  Overall, it’s a beautiful and emotional read, and one that will make sure that you keep picking up more treasures by Alice Hoffman.  4 stars.