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My 29th birthday was a very bookish one–which was quite nice, since reading is one of the best ways to spend one’s convalescence! My grandmother gave me three Star Wars novels (which I will review in due course) while my parents gave me Joel Clarkson’s Sensing God, Sally Clarkson’s Own Your Life, and Nadine Brandes’ historical fantasy Romanov*.
Romanov. The name sparks memories of a traveling exhibit my family and I visited when I was very young–a traveling exhibit called “Nicholas and Alexandra.” By that point in my life I was already fascinated by real-life kings and queens, primarily those from the British royal family. That exhibit, however, introduced me to the tragic story of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and his family…and I’ve been obsessed with them ever since. So obsessed, in fact, that my upcoming novel Operation Lionhearted was loosely inspired by the mystery revolving around the youngest of Nicholas’ daughters, Anastasia.
Here’s the story–the real story–in brief. Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children–Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei–were overthrown, exiled, and eventually massacred in 1918 during Russia’s Communist (“Bolshevik”) Revolution. Their deaths stunned a world already reeling from the Great War. It would’ve been bad enough for the Communists to execute Nicholas, but to brutally massacre him, his wife, his four beautiful daughters, and his teenage son was horrendous.
For years, however, a rumor stubbornly persisted that the youngest daughter, 17-year-old Anastasia, had survived. Several women even came forward claiming her identity, the most convincing being a woman named Anna Anderson who insisted to her deathbed that she was the lost Grand Duchess. Not until 2007 did DNA tests on the Romanov family’s remains (excavated from their mass grave in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union) conclusively prove that Anastasia did indeed perish with her parents and siblings.
Yet the mythic elements of her story–or rather, her possible story–refuse to die. They inspired the 1956 film Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman in the titular role, a 1997 animated musical (which I watched on repeat as a wee girl), and numerous novels of every genre: historical, fantasy, sci-fi, you name it. “The Lost Princess” trope is alive and well, thanks in large part to Anastasia Romanov.
Enter Nadine Brandes’ novel*, which I read over a span of three days. I haven’t read a book that fast in years! (In my defense, my family and I were on our way to Arkansas for a wedding, and reading is my favorite road trip pastime 😉 ) By the time I turned the final page I had so many feelings: delight in a story well-told, genuine love and grief for the real Anastasia (a historical friend of mine since I was a child), and a deep conviction that while forgiveness and redemption may be hard to come by, hard to accept, and hard to extend to others, they are within reach.
(From here on out there will be some spoilers–so if you don’t want to read those, stop here and just know that I highly recommend this novel!)
Romanov is unique in that it places Anastasia’s story within a fantasy-heavy framework. Magic and history intersect in this novel, and for the first few chapters it was a little jarring to my inner historian: “Waaaaaaait a second–the Romanovs weren’t ‘spell-masters’–Nicholas and Alexandra didn’t employ magicians to produce a son–Rasputin doesn’t really count!” But then I distinctly remember telling myself, “Will you just shut up and read the story before you make a judgment?!” Once I took my own advice, the narrative swept me away!
Anastasia’s God-given talent for “spell mastery” drives this story forward. It ensures her survival and allows her to protect her beloved little brother Alexei (who, in reality as well as fiction, suffers from a dangerous blood disorder). But it also identifies her as a Romanov. The cruel Bolshevik commander Yurovsky (based on the real man who oversaw the family’s massacre) is determined to wipe out not just the Romanov dynasty, but all the spell-masters who would defy Communist rule. “Nastya,” as her family calls her, is a double target.
But as much as her gift for magic influences nearly all of Anastasia’s decisions, so does her love for her family, her growing attraction to a young soldier named Zash (be still my heart!), and her constant struggle to forgive those who don’t deserve it. She was such a real heroine to me and so accurate to the historical Anastasia: funny, stubbornly cheerful, borderline rebellious…and realistically, sympathetically resistant to the idea of loving her enemies. I’ve never endured the level of hardship and cruelty Anastasia did, but I know–oh, how I know!–how hard it is to forgive those who’ve hurt me and/or my family.
But forgiving does NOT mean forgetting, as Anastasia so powerfully learns. She’s given that choice in the most literal way possible, and the temptation to wipe away all her suffering is a terrible one. But ultimately she refuses it in one of the few truly peaceful scenes in this suspenseful tale:
“As I lay in the grass next to the spell that could rid me of heart pain, I realized that a part of forgiveness was accepting the things someone had done—and the pain that came with that—and moving on with love. Forgiveness was a personal battle that must always be fought in my heart. Daily. And though I was tired of running and surviving and fighting . . . I wasn’t ready to surrender that battle yet.”
Romanov* ends on a bittersweet but hopeful note for our fictional Anastasia and Alexei, but at the end of the day it underlines the deep love and loyalty this family really did have for each other, their real-life, well-documented efforts to show kindness to their enemies, and their devout Orthodox faith. I’ll be re-reading this one sooner rather than later…and most likely more slowly. It deserves to be relished.
Lord of the world, God of Creation,
Give us Thy blessing through our prayer
Give peace of heart to us, O Master,
This hour of utmost dread to bear.
And on the threshold of the grave–A prayer written by Grand Duchess Olga Romanov (Anastasia’s eldest sister) just before her death
Breathe power divine into our clay
That we, Thy children, may find strength
In meekness for our foes to pray.