by Joy Preble
September 1, 2009
Borrowed from Library
by Joy Preble
September 1, 2009
Borrowed from Library
What really happened to Anastasia Romanov?
Anastasia Romanov thought she would never feel more alone than when the gunfire started and her family began to fall around her. Surely the bullets would come for her next. But they didn't. Instead, two gnarled old hands reached for her. When she wakes up she discovers that she is in the ancient hut of the witch Baba Yaga, and that some things are worse than being dead.
In modern-day Chicago, Anne doesn't know much about Russian history. She is more concerned about getting into a good college—until the dreams start. She is somewhere else. She is someone else. And she is sharing a small room with a very old woman. The vivid dreams startle her, but not until a handsome stranger offers to explain them does she realize her life is going to change forever. She is the only one who can save Anastasia. But, Anastasia is having her own dreams…
This was an odd little book that, despite the subject of Anastasia Romanov, really felt completely original as I read it. Perhaps it’s in part because there are so few retellings of Russian fairy tales – or Russian influence on typical young adult paranormal books, but while some of the elements were familiar, the story as a whole was incredibly fresh.
We start with Anna, a modern Chicagoland teenager, who’s having weird dreams of another teen girl trapped in a little cottage on chicken legs. Anna tries to brush the dreams off – as well as the odd sightings of a boy who seems to be following her – in order to focus on her schoolwork and ballet, but nothing seems to work.
The author quickly introduces two other points of view – that of the boy, Ethan, who’s been looking for Anna for one hundred years and the other girl, Anastasia Romanov. When the Romanov family was killing that day in Ekaterinaburg, Anastasia was saved by the hands of Baba Yaga and taken to live with her in her hut for eternity.
From the beginning, there are many mysteries to simultaneously unravel. Who’s Ethan and what does he want with Anna? Why is Anna dreaming about Anastasia and conversely why is Anastasia dreaming about Anna? How was Anastasia saved from death, and can she be rescued from Baba Yaga’s hands? What does Anna have to do with any of this? Maybe there are almost too many threads for them all to be handled well because the characterization of most of the characters suffers as a result.
Anna seemed the typical teenage girl – almost too typical at times. Her side comments and attempts to be snarky took the place of a developed personality. And while she certainly was brave and I cheered her on, I also wanted to see a more of a three-dimensional character emerge from the demands of the plot.
Surprisingly, Ethan was much more developed as a character. Other than his (sigh) instant love for Anna, his motivations and goals were both clear and reasonable. I loved the idea of an order of eternal Brothers searching for the girl who possesses the power to free the Last Romanov from her prison. I rarely believed that Ethan was actually over a hundred years old – he read mostly as a teenager, but there was a definite weight to him and his actions that felt appropriate.
My favourite character of the trio definitely was Anastasia. All her scenes had a dreamlike quality that really intrigued me. Perhaps I expected less because she truly was a fairytale character, but she jumped off the page even though she’s trapped within a tiny hut for the majority of the book. And – without spoilers – her actions at the end of the books felt entirely true both to her character and to her role as a Romanov princess.
The ‘letters’ Anastasia writes to her family were the worst part of her storyline. I love the idea of letters written by Anastasia from her prison, but from a purely superficial view, the handwriting font used is incredibly difficult to read, and while I completely can believe this great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria would write in English, the English she uses is colloquial and full of late twentieth and twenty-first century slang to the point of being jarring. The letters also spent a lot of time discussing Romanov history sometimes to the point of an infodump. From an alternate point of view, I couldn’t help wondering why Anastasia would write to her family about history they already would know or why she’d do it so awkwardly “…as you probably remember, dear papa,” etc… Perhaps a diary or letters to an unknown recipient would have served this aim better.
The dream sequences set in Baba Yaga’s hut are handled much, much more skillfully, and at times, I almost wanted to have the entire book set there in the odd fairytale world of talking matryoshka dolls and magic. The fairytale atmosphere really takes over here, and the dreamlike quality I mentioned before is very, very well done.
This is definitely a plot driven story as opposed to a character driven one. The plot is both intriguing and ambitious, but it would have been better served by more completely drawn characters and more of a focus on making sure the characters would feasibly perform the actions the plot requires. I’m not entirely sure this book had gelled completely in the author’s head, and I think it could have withstood another draft or two to really develop into a worthy vehicle for these interesting and original plot ideas.
I didn’t realize this was the first in a trilogy until I just looked the book up on Goodreads this moment. It felt like a standalone novel, and while I can see the hooks into a second book, the second book also doesn’t feel necessary. However I’ve requested it from my library, and we’ll see how it goes.