FULL DISCLOSURE: I received early access to this book through Netgalley.com in exchange for writing an impartial review. Scheduled Publication Date: January 5, 2021.
I had high expectations for this one since I love Russian history, particularly in the form of historical fiction. AND I have long been searching for a novel that paints a vivid image of Jews during the era of pogroms. Unfortunately, though both are addressed in this novel — I felt the execution was a bit clumsy. Awarded three stars on Goodreads but a rating of 3.5 stars might be more accurate.
The novel begins at the turn of the 20th century, continuing through the next few years leading up to the Revolution of 1905. Tsar Nicolas II (a well-meaning but inept ruler) and his wife Alexandra have close relationships with their four daughters, but are desperate for a son and heir. Russian peasants live in abysmal conditions while the aristocracy enjoys unimaginable wealth and privilege. Would-be revolutionaries and the secret police are at war. And many in power, including the Tsar, blame the Jews for both revolutionary sentiments and violence.
Into this mix the author creates a fictional character, Prince Dimitri Markhov, a member of the nobility who is also a close personal friend of the Tsar and his family. The novel centers on Markhov’s story and his transition from enjoying his life of privilege to gaining a deep recognition of the widespread injustices and antisemitism that underpin the Tsar’s regime. This involves Markhov wrestling with issues like friendship, loyalty, and love.
On the plus side, I do think the book does an admirable job of showing the societal gulf between rich and poor, including how out of touch the Tsar was with most of his people, their conditions, and their beliefs. The author successfully weaves in a number of assassination attempts against the Tsar as well as a number of other prominent historical events. And the book paints a sobering picture of Jewish life under the daily threat of pogroms — one of the chief reasons so many Russian Jews emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, as my own grandparents did.
On the minus side, the author’s efforts to include background information about the beliefs and treatment of Jews during this period was often awkward– taking the form of stilted and unbelievable dialog between Jews and non-Jews. These exchanges simply didn’t ring true.
I also never found myself emotionally involved with any of the characters. And I think that was because the book seemed to lack cohesion. At times it felt like a book telling Markhov’s story. At other times the focus shifted to more peripheral characters who were revolutionary “plants” in the Tsar’s inner circle. And sometimes, it seemed more like a story of the Tsar and his family. I felt this shifting around of the novel’s point of view kept me at a distance.
I still recommend the book, particularly for those interested in the subject matter. It’s a quick and engaging read. I just don’t feel it was as good as it could have been.
More about the author.