Tsardust: The Tragic and Romantic Appeal of the Romanovs

Book Group BuzzWhat is it about certain historical figures or eras that draw so much of our attention as readers? If one were to take a shelf of typical historical fiction and remove the books about the Tudors, it would probably shrink by half. Remove the books about Hitler, Victoria, Napoleon, the French revolution, and the American Civil War, and another 25 percent would probably disappear. While I don’t have qualifications as a social scientist, I’m sure many dissertations could be written on the political and social implications of our interest in these eras as seen in historical fiction and popular nonfiction. But as a librarian, I’m more interested in satisfying readers than in analyzing these trends.

For readers who crave opulence and
romance, this era offers both.

Another particularly captivating set of historical figures is the Romanovs. There’s something tragic about the last Tsar and his family, and something sinister about the Romanov ancestors and that dark advisor, Rasputin. Speculation as to whether any of the Romanovs survived (Anastasia in particular), and the mystery and political machinations surrounding their final days, leaves readers and writers alike with plenty to sift through. For readers who crave opulence and romance, this era offers both. It’s easy to see why the subject remains popular.

Eye of the Red TsarI was motivated to blog on this subject by the first book in Sam Eastland’s historical fiction series: The Eye of the Red Tsar ( 2010), featuring Finland-born Inspector Pekkala. Pekkala was an investigator and confidant for Nicholas Romanov during the last days of the Romanov Tsar. Although he remained loyal to the Romanovs, he wasn’t there the night the family was supposedly killed. The book begins with Pekkala’s 1929 release from a Gulag into the custody of his brother, a higher-up in Stalin’s government. A mine shaft holding the Romanovs’ bodies has supposedly been discovered, and only Pekkala has the skills and personal knowledge to confirm or deny the rumor. Could one of the Romanovs still be alive? Is Pekkala being manipulated by Stalin for some sinister purpose? The book has an atmospheric,  twisting plot that will keep readers interested and inspire them to read more about the Romanovs. Since The Eye of the Red Tsar, four more novels have moved Pekkala forward into World War II, still in the service of Stalin but not entirely his tool as he avoids falling afoul of the Secret Police while exploring other historical mysteries. The most recent book, published this year, is The Beast in the Red Forest.

While Eastland’s debut is a great book, unfortunately its strongest point is its plot, which doesn’t make it the best candidate for a book group book, if used on its own—it can be hard to generate an extended discussion from plot-focused books. So instead, I recommend having a theme night for books about the Romanovs or Russian history. It’s a subject that should make most readers happy and yet allow for a variety of choices. Here are a few great choices to get you started:

Nonfiction

Fiction

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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