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Book Review: Romonov by Nadine Brandes

Searching for shapes in the clouds has been a favorite pastime for many of the young or the young at heart. The constantly-shifting patterns and textures are a vibrant fabric for the imagination, lending a fluffy pair of wings to an alabaster pig or breathing life into the otherwise-extinct Tyrannosaurus Rex. This innate sense of creativity and wonder allows us to believe, even if only for a moment, that maybe magic really does exist.

Nadine Brandes captures this magic–literally and figuratively–in her novel Romanov. Rather than utilizing the canvas of the sky, however, she allows her imagination to explore the canvas of history. Her book cultivates in readers, not only a number of difficult and thought-provoking questions, but also a unique sense of wonder at the world around them and the possibility of magic that dwells therein. She explores themes of love, forgiveness, and healing without backing down from the brutality of living in a fallen world. The amount of research that went into representing the Romanov family as factually as possible is clear, particularly to anyone already familiar with their tragic account, and the appendix in which Brandes highlights the details of the strictly historical events brings her story to life even more.

But Brandes challenges herself beyond simply crafting a compelling narrative; as with one of her previous novels, Fawkes, she sets herself far apart from black-and-white biographies or the typical artistic license of historical fiction by seamlessly weaving fantasy into the story. From spell ink to spell masters, Brandes makes magic an integral part of the tale without allowing it to overshadow either character arcs or plot development. The realism with which she blends two sub-genres that would normally have little-to-no bearing upon each other is masterful.

The story begins well after the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, at a time when the Romanovs are under an uncomfortable but mostly tolerable state of house arrest by the Bolsheviks. The story is told from the point of view of the teenage Nastya Romanov. Having received a small amount of training from Rasputin, a spell master, before his execution by Bolsheviks in their quest to completely purge Russia of spells, she is the only member of her family able to provide recurring temporary physical relief to her younger brother and rightful heir to the throne, Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. However, she must keep the working of her relief spells a close secret, since the discovery of magic by the Bolsheviks would lead to unpleasant results for her and her family. This danger is compounded for Nastya when her father entrusts her with a Matryoshka doll crafted by Dochkin, “Russia’s most respected and skilled spell master” (10). Each layer of the doll contains a spell and will only open at the moment it is most needed. Nastya’s father tells her, “This doll . . . may be our family’s only salvation” (11).

The story has barely begun when the Romanovs are relocated to a different city for their imprisonment, one far away from the Bolshevik soldiers they have befriended and under a stricter regime designed to more accurately reflect the fact that the Romanovs are prisoners; their privacy is stripped away, their access to the outdoors and even the fresh air of an open window is severely limited, many of their possessions are confiscated, and the quantity and quality of food they receive drops drastically. The situation allows Brandes to explore one of the primary themes of her novel, that of loving and forgiving our enemies. This love and forgiveness is something that Nastya struggles with but strives to fulfill, if for no other reason than to please her father. The following passage shows a glimpse of this:

“Commandant Avdeev and his aides had access to our rooms any time they desired. Had Avdeev entered at that moment, he would have found us all gathered in the sitting room, kneeling together beneath the electric Italian glass chandelier with Papa leading us in prayer. More tears came from our eyes than words from our mouths. Papa always said that tears were the most fervent prayers, so I let them flow. “‘We must show kindness to the soldiers,’ Papa entreated us. ‘Every day, show them forgiveness. We are a reflection of Iisus, and he was rejected by his own people just as we are. Love. Forgive.’ He kissed each of us on the forehead. “I was determined to be as he asked. To be humble. To be forgiving. To always hold to hope. We bid each other good night.” (52-53)

This passage also provides a brief glimpse at one of the few criticisms that I have of the book: namely, the introduction of the Romanovs’ Christianity. Though the Christian elements of the family’s belief system did feel mostly natural by the end of the book, it was a few chapters before it was introduced, yet it was presented in such a way as to imply that Iisus, Jesus, was an important part of the Romanovs’ lives, leaving readers to wonder why it took so long for Iisus to make an appearance. Especially in a book where magic has already taken an important role, it is difficult to tell whether the Romanovs are trusting more in spells or in God. While the truth almost certainly lies in some blend of the two, there is initially a stark contrast between the natural tendency to turn to magic for relief and the overall forced feeling of the family’s Christianity, as if it is being included merely to check off an item from an obnoxious list of “Essentials for Christian Writers.” Thankfully, this impression did not last, but it is a weakness that temporarily distracted me from the story.

As the story continues, Brandes allows elements of romance to enter and creates a beautiful philosophical conundrum when Nastya’s desire to please her papa by showing love and forgiveness to the soldiers leads unwittingly to something deeper, and the dangerous arousal of reciprocal love between her and her captor–and her attempts to resist that arousal–lead to life-threatening situations for both of them. Ultimately, the two biggest themes of the book are love and forgiveness, but Brandes invites readers to explore what such virtues look like in the most trying and difficult of circumstances. She introduces one obstacle after another, making the burden of personal and moral complications heavy enough to feel both real and discouraging to readers. This is not a story that drives readers to perfection, as is so common in the world of Christian fiction; rather, it is a story that paints a picture of complete brokenness and shattered healing, a picture of angry rebellion and quiet strength, a picture of love’s power and love’s danger.

Though it is, in many ways, a painful story to read, Brandes somehow manages to keep the reader’s feet grounded in realism while also encouraging them to dig a little deeper and see if maybe–just maybe–there might still be a little magic buried in that ground.

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