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18691014 The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial RussiaThe Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade, July 2014
Reviewed from ARC

Six stars.

It seems like everyone is talking about The Family Romanov*. Let’s set aside those stars though, because a discussion of what it means when a book earns full marks, ahem, stars, should be its own post. (Okay, here’s the TL;DR version: six stars last year were the prelude to Caldecott gold for Brian Floca’s Locomotive but weren’t so predictive for Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints—even though we wanted them to be.)

The more interesting awards discussion surrounding this book is actually about audience. Is Fleming more likely to be in the running for a Newbery or a Printz? And yes, that last sentence assumes that The Family Romanov is a serious contender for one or both, because really, if it isn’t, I’m going to have seriously re-think everything I know about the world. (Full disclosure: I have yet to read Jonathan Hunt’s review over at Heavy Medal; I intentionally avoid reading other reviews before I write my own, but I will read it before we dig into this question in the comments.) Although I can’t speak to Newbery criteria, I strongly believe that this book is best for fourteen-year-olds and up; mainly because of the advanced development of themes, the dense information included, and the nuanced character writing in a narrative package that’s utterly gripping and dramatically complex. I’m sure that some younger readers will read and adore this book, but it reads like it was designed to make teens start to question authority, and that’s very teen.

The Family Romanov has arrived at an incredibly relevant moment given the growing wealth inequality in the U.S. and abroad, and the current turmoil in Russia. It’s a timely story that helped me understand the Russian Revolution far better than I ever had before** and also forced me to reflect on our world today, making me wonder what changes our society could—or should—make to avoid similar mistakes. Throughout a thrilling and taut narrative Fleming raises uncomfortable truths about power, hubris, ignorance, and greed. Complex and messy concepts for teens of course, but what clarifies these issues is that Fleming never forgets that real people are what makes the themes resonate so deeply, and so just as much care goes into developing character. She does an especially good job with Alexandra, describing a devout convert to Christian Orthodoxy, showing how Rasputin took advantage of her faith, and ultimately manipulated her and Nicholas in order to become (then remain) powerful and influential.

Fleming’s structure for the tale of the Romanov downfall provides the reader with the necessary context to see the whole picture without overwhelming the dramatic narrative with extraneous material. The major way she achieves this is through the use of primary source writing throughout the book in sections called, “Beyond the Palace Gates.” She gives us the voices of peasants and workers who suffered through hunger, disease, and death while the Romanovs were more worried about birthing a son and politicians cared more about themselves than the people they were supposed to represent. Fleming uses these excerpts from memoirs and diaries to either reflect the previous section or set up the next. They’re stark comparisons of the Romanovs and their subjects that make the reader omniscient and therefore heighten the dramatic tension, as we are able to witness, understand, and then predict events. Despite stopping the narrative thrust by introducing new people and stories, these sections keep the plot moving because it’s easier to digest this amount of information in smaller pieces. Fleming’s focus on character is a hook, and tight plotting with just the right amount of factual context sustains interest. It’s rich and layered but ridiculously engaging and such a page-turner that I had no problem reading it for hours on the beach a few months ago.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Chapter 17, which describes the days leading up to the murder of the Romanovs. With each passing section, titled simply with a date, one feels the impending doom. It is simply a tour de force. Fleming maintains high tension even though we already know she is leading us to the family’s death. She uses incredible descriptive writing; carefully crafted sentence-level construction controls the mood, and it’s tense but also intensely sad. We’ve seen this family grow up over the course of the book and Fleming creates deep sympathy for them without absolving Nicholas and Alexandra of their ignorance; it’s very clear that they’ve had a hand in their own demise but their stoicism in their last moments is undeniably moving.

There are no easy answers or morals at the end of this book, leaving readers with a lot to think about; isn’t that what great literature should do? There’s so much to discuss and analyze, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I sincerely hope the Real Committee feels the same in January. How about you?

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