Growing up like many of my fellow die hard readers, I came to have a bit of a ‘Matilda’ reputation with the elementary school librarians because I was one of the few 9 year olds with a penchant for biographies. I devoured these real life stories of men and women who’d composed symphonies, traveled the world, survived wars, or natural disasters. Don’t get me wrong, I also loved fiction, but there was some element of intrigue and magic in these true tales, that set my imagination off and running.
These people had actually existed, and that simple fact led me to wonder what my own life story would entail. One of the unforgettable histories that captivated me was that of the last Russian Tsar and his children, namely the story of Anastasia. So of course when I saw J. Nelle Patrick had written a historical fantasy, Tsarina, set in that time period, it jumped to the top of my list.
Imperial Russia swirls with rebellion.
The Reds are gaining ground, and the loyal Whites struggle to hold Saint Petersburg. But Natalya isn’t afraid. Wrapped in fur and tucked inside her lavish home, she feels safe. Alexei Romanov, heir to the Russian throne and her first love, has told her a secret: Hidden within the Winter Palace lies a Faberge Egg enchanted by the mystic Rasputin. With it, the Romanovs will never fall from power. The Reds will never take the country. And one day, Alexei will ascend the throne and Natalya will be beside him— the tsarina of Russia.
But when the Reds raid the Winter Palace, the egg vanishes and the Romanovs are captured. Natalya must find the egg to save Alexei, her way of life, and her royal future. To do so, she’s forced to ally herself with the enemy— a young Red named Leo who wants the egg for his own purposes. But as they brave a war-battered landscape of snow and magic, Natalya realizes that the world isn’t as simple as it seemed back in Saint Petersburg. Nothing– not friends, not politics, and not love– are as clear as Red and White.
Told from Alexei’s fictional fiançée Natalya’s perspective, Tsarina acted as a magical portkey, transporting me back to the opulent yet fragile final days of Imperial Russia. Through Patrick’s writing, I could feel my breath turn to frost in a train car heading East in the Russian forests, see the sharp contrast between the wealthy and the poor of St. Petersburg, and even taste Natalya’s fear as she is chased by Red soldiers across a crumbling Empire. This book seriously had me on the edge of my chair, I didn’t feel like the characters were safe and the plot kept twisting unexpectedly; I haven’t felt so surprised and enthralled in a long while.
Natalya’s transformation from entitled, snobby rich girl, to a girl who’s lost everything and is on the run felt believable, because her sense of duty and determined nature remained constant; her objective changed as she became less ignorant of the peasants’ struggle in her beloved Russia. I really enjoyed watching her relationship with Leo, her Red captor, become something more complicated, to the point where I was yelling at the book “Screw Alexei!” The way the supernatural elements were woven with the fabergé Constellation egg was subtle and Patrick let the air of mystery surrounding the real Romanovs simmer at the edges of her story. The eerie death of Rasputin and the haunting legacy of his babushka/witch-like followers also stayed with me long after I finished reading Tsarina. Although the book left me thoroughly satisfied, I’m desperately craving a sequel!