Book Review: Triumph of a Tsar

Triumph of a Tsar by Tamar Anolic

While alternative historical fiction is not an entirely new genre for me, it is true I don’t have a ton of experience with it. Elements such as pacing or character development can be tricky, but going into Tamar Anolic’s Triumph of a Tsar lent an anticipatory rather than nervous sensation as to how her treatment might affect history, so to speak. This is largely thanks to the cover, the title itself and Anolic’s chosen historical figures. The last Russian tsar and his family, after all, have been the object of great curiosity and scrutiny in the century since the Russian Revolution that ended the monarchy and murdered the entire Romanov family, and asking the great what ifs likely shall continue for as long as humans are alive to present them.

Parsing out details of the Romanovs’ lives offers prospects, chances that nevertheless peter out when we are forced to accept that none of history happened the way we wanted it to have: if Alexandra had been more popular, if the Bolsheviks hadn’t gained the upper hand, if Nicholas II was a stronger leader—and much more. Anolic’s title, however, offers great possibility, as does the inset image of Nicholas and the tsarevich surrounded by palatial majesty, particularly the rising columns above them. While royal opulence can easily alienate people, here there is a soaring sort of potential that beckons us in.

Triumph and mass slaughter do not match, at least not in this context, so we know going in there is to be no Ekaterinburg. The question of which tsar bears the title’s triumph is answered early with the (more natural) death of Nicholas, and it makes utter sense for Anolic to choose the sixteen-year-old heir, Alexei: an unknown quantity to us, he also represents the future, a better match to the new post-Great War world history is passing into. The author tends to utilize expository speech fairly often, which in this story works quite well as it functions simultaneously to provide alternate details and accustom us to characters we know to have been frozen in history, never making it to the ages at which they are now being portrayed. She also remains faithful to major personality traits family members were each reported as possessing, embedding these characteristics in their older selves.

It is entirely in character, for example, for Alexandra to insist upon acting as regent for her son, and fitting for him to refuse. Said to have been intelligent and compassionate, the real Alexei might very well have enacted many of the changes Anolic’s Alexei does. The passage in which mother and son debate the heir’s ascendancy reveals a great deal about individuals—historical and alternate—and concludes with the new tsar’s victory without him having to demean his mother, whose habit of indulging her youngest child leads to her submission in the face of his pushback.

While this is not an historical moment, Anolic is nevertheless on target: Alexei, largely as a result of the hemophilia he inherited from his mother (which could be traced back to his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria), was quite spoiled, though also aware he might not live to adulthood. Anolic reflects his doubts, and the great care with which he conducts his physical movements, with an authentic sensitivity while avoiding any sort of outward show.

For an individual whose mobility is fraught with peril, Alexei gets around quite well, having developed his own technique for doing, and we see him move through the years holding his own physically, emotionally and politically. There are a few spots in which relationships—between Alexei and a foreign leader, Alexandra and Marie Feodorovna are two—come off as a bit too bright, and even an awareness of required diplomacy doesn’t entirely explain the feel of the passages. Also, I questioned whether a nation of people equipped with a train that could carry its monarch across a continent to England yet is underfunded in its railroads is entirely reflective of the adoration Alexei is granted in the book.

Still, these are small portions within a story of strong and developed dialogue, and it has to be stated that in these same passages and others, Alexei also displays solid intuition—“It’s much easier to be isolationist when you have two oceans separating you from everyone else”—and ability to turn lesser positions into strength, such as his view to his nation’s status as underdeveloped. He is also unafraid to state his case as he aims to bring his homeland into the new world that arose following the Industrial Revolution and Great War.

Once the review was over, Alexei took a microphone from his new police chief, Feodor Mikhailovich Ivanov. “Gentlemen,” he began, and his voice soared. “I am proud of you and each of the Russian soldiers who will be marching out to defend our country. But I did not make the decision to declare war lightly. It was only because of the threat to Russia, and to each of us personally, that Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler represent. We mean to live our lives as free Russians, worshipping God in the Orthodox tradition. They mean to dominate us and incorporate us into a German empire where God does not exist.”

The only true beef I have with the book is its listing of characters. Personally speaking, it would have been better positioned at the start rather than end, and Anolic’s presentation of the family might have been organized more efficiently, with added notes for patronymics and nicknames. While I know Alix of Hesse (Alexandra) and her family fairly confidently, I have to focus a bit harder for the Russian side. An early conversation including Pavel and Elizabeth proved confusing until I finally figured out the pair were brother and sister, and not husband and wife.

At 267 pages, Triumph of a Tsar doesn’t overburden its audience with mass. Yet the experience of reading it leaves one with the rich sensation of having traveled a great distance through the lives of many other people whose stories themselves are filled with much captivating detail, amazing as well as ordinary (the latter of which can be just as gratifying to read about in the lives of historical figures). Indeed, it really is Alexei’s story, so the focus remains with him, yet still we are privy to paths that weave through the histories of other European relatives and houses, often with the joy of recognizing the real-life counterparts of people or events.

There is a bit of sadness there as well, for we know what happened to many of these people in real life. But Anolic has a great ability to steer us away from that without having to rely on unrealistic cheer. Happiness does exist in the novel, of course, along with fear, anxiety, excitement, anticipation—in short, her narrative reflects the many varied paths Alexei, his mother, sisters, relatives and others take, focusing on who they were and possibly might have been, and not centering their entire identities on their victim status. It is the first book on the Romanovs I recall ever  reading without having to brace myself for heartbreak at the end.

In this way the novel might be said to have a revenge fantasy element, though I’m not inclined to label it as such. While certain historical figures make their appearances, vengeance isn’t exactly how interaction plays out, and that might be what Anolic gifts us: a scenario in which the Romanovs move forward to a greater day without having to mimic the barbarism of their enemies. We see them closer to who they wanted to be, a gift to them, and to us.

Signature of Alexei Nikolaevich from Wikimedia Commons

About the author…

Tamar Anolic is a writer and lawyer who practices in the Washington, D.C. area. Her other passion is traveling. She has been to such far-flung places as Antarctica, Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, and some of these places have been the settings for her writing. She has a long history of being published in various magazines and newspapers, and now has several books to her credit. Follow her website or see her at September’s end at the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Independent Book Festival.

Triumph of a Tsar may be purchased at Amazon.

*********

The author provided a free copy of Triumph of a Tsar

in order to facilitate an honest review.

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