Certainly not a fresh era to cover by any stretch of the imagination, the tragic tale of the Romanov Dynasty’s end has received its fair share of artistic retellings with varying degrees of factuality, from an award-winning Broadway musical to a prolific animated movie, with countless books and documentaries in between. However, Nadine Brandes opted for a much more layered exploration of this period, delving further than any of the other media covering the era. Tackling the main character Anastasia and her relationships with her surrounding family and peers, Brandes provides a unique, albeit fictional, take on the era, surpassing any expectations readers could have had. Though it may kick off in underwhelming fashion, almost completely devoid of an engaging drive, Romanov quickly gets back on its feet and continues the rest of the story strong with a savory balance of action, suspense, and an increasingly important romantic subplot.
Standing strong is Brandes’ subtle characterization of Anastasia, transitioning from a whiny and confused teenage girl to a self-aware and resilient young woman. As an author, Brandes commands each scene, placing Anastasia in natural, interwoven scenarios. It’s all skillful with lingering character arcs all being wrapped up by its middling yet commendable conclusion.
Kicking off in Tobolsk, a world finished with deep lore, Anastasia (referred to by her close ones as Nastya) and her sisters prepare for the impending attack by the Bolsheviks by burning their diaries and sewing their “jewels” (medicines) into their sleeves and corsets. It’s an intriguing premise, one that propels the story throughout with just minor hiccups throughout. There’s a delicate balance on display here, as the author balances the harsh historical realities with a loftier interpretation. Character arcs, even though they were never documented, are grounded in historical fact, with one of the most prominent examples being Nastya’s relationship with Alexei. Alexi, Nastya’s younger brother, whose hemophilia proved to be a factual tacking but still served as a propellant and catalyst for Nastya’s process of maturity and understanding.
Yet it’s all still complemented by a fantastical brandish of magic. The injection of usually a forbidden element into some of the main locations didn’t compromise the experience; in fact, it rather complemented it, adding yet another layer of tension, coming in the form of a Matryoshka doll, entrusted to Anastasia by her father. This essentially becomes her most valued possession, and the relationship of reverence and mystery surrounding this and many other symbols and figures, such as Dochkin, the ultimate spell master of Russia, add a great deal of lore to Anastasia, giving her a true personality as an aspiring spell master and spirit, rather than the clichéd and honestly pathetic label of “Princess Gone Missing.” Should Brandes have gone this route, it could have genuinely toppled the narrative tower that Romanov is.
Anastasia’s relationship with Zash, a Siberian Bolshevik, proved to additionally be a pleasant surprise. Brandes managed to not make their relationship a simple tack on at the end and was able to successfully weave in the importance and relevance of their interactions and feelings for each other. Though it felt somewhat awkward and rushed, the Anastasia and Zash relationship proved entertaining and effective enough as a plot device in the long run, even if it didn’t always make sense at the moment.
The story of Anastasia has been told countless times, but the unique approach is taken in Romanov to tell the story, not from the stance of a street urchin with amnesia, but a slightly arrogant and flawed, but fiercely loyal and courageous 16-year-old was refreshing, measured by a constant and steady pace. Seeing the romantic subplot be shifted off to the side was a bold move on Brandes’ part, and it works fabulously. Between all the depressing events, there’s a real comic relief and humor that glues it all together. The journey of self-discovery and growth that Anastasia experiences are ultimately inspiring, and despite its monotonous and lethargic tone at the onset, Brandes managed to build up a strong and engaging pace for the rest of the novel and told an unprecedented iteration of a rinsed out tale. Simply put, there are much worse ways to handle the era.