First of all, thanks to the publisher for providing me with an e-ARC through NetGalley in exchange of an honest review.
I had a basic knowledge of the Romanov’s history before entering this novel, enough to get me very intrigued. And I had been following Nadine Brandes on Instagram for some time, but although it had given me a glimpse of what a lovely human being she is, I was yet to read her works. I am very happy I got to discover her through this touching novel.
The story opens up in revolutionary Russia, with the Romanov family being held in captivity, anxiously waiting for their fates to be set. Alexei, the son, heir of the throne before his father abdication, suffers from hemophilia, and we are soon introduced to an intriguing system of magic that may hold the key of his (and the whole family’s) salvation. In this alternate 20th century Russia, spells are made out of inks and words.
The action quickens as the family is separated. Before leaving, the tsar Nikolai entrusts his daughter Anastasia with a matriochka doll fabricated by Doshkin, a legendary spell master. The mysterious spells it holds have not been unveiled yet, but he is confident it will help save them when needed.
“Did she see all the threads of life we were leaving behind? The piles of memories we’d never revisit? The sheen of hope we were abandoning?”
We then follow the trials of a family confronted to the hostility of their people and facing menacing uncertainty, through the eyes of Nastya. It was interesting and heartrending to see the incomprehension building between a ruling elite and a suffering people, and how desperate the royal family is to befriend their captors and make them understand who they truly are. The tsar set a wonderful example for his family, privileging humility, compassion and kindness, and trying to reach the heart of their captors.
“My soul cracked right along with the crisp pages.”
Nastya is an endearing narrator, bold, mischievous and brave, very loving as well. She provides with a refreshing perspective on her civil war-torn country, as we share her hopes and fear, her doubts and pains.
Lessons about love and forgiveness are threaded throughout the story and I appreciated that. And then, when tragedy strikes it takes all Nastya’s strength to surmount her trials while staying true to these values.
“Everyone’s hearts had their own aches — and that was not something I could scoff at.”
I found this story gripping, full of adventure and emotions. The first half is slow and intriguing, setting the context and building relationships, before the shocking twist that blows Nastya’s world and changes the Romanov’s fate forever. I read the second part in almost one sitting, heart pounding and eager to see the resolution, to learn whether love and life would triumph in the end.
The writing is clear and fluid, a bit naive in parts, but it suits the character.
“That was what positive moments were for — to help heal the wounds of the future. As long as we chose to remember.”
It is clear there was a lot of research put into the building of the novel and in the afterwords Nadine Brandes tells us more about what is history and what is fiction. I found that the two were braided together convincingly and the magic twist she added very original. Reading the novel, you can feel her affection for the family and how she tried to honour their memory.
All in all an original, touching and charming story, that tells important lessons, but also stays gripping and entertaining.
“The bond of our hearts spans miles, memory and time.”
In short : Read if you love quick historical reads with a fantasy twist, that mix love, tragedy, action and a ladle of good intentions and virtues.
Out 7 May from Thomas Nelson!
Please note that all the quotes featured here are taken from a proof copy of the novel, and may be subject to change in the definitive version.