Review: The Last Tsar’s Dragons

Posted: June 7, 2019 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Adam Stemple, Jane Yolen, Alternate Historical Fiction, Short Fiction

If you’re reading this review, the odds are good it’s because at some point you read a book with a dragon in it–and realized that most subjects could benefit from dragons, such as: endless political machinations, the Napoleonic Wars, and yes even tacos.

Everything’s better with dragons.

And now that list includes Russian history.

“The dragons were harrowing the provinces again. They did that whenever the Tsar was upset with the Jews.” Jane Yolen wasn’t planning on writing more dragon stories but when these lines popped into her head, the image of leathery wings in dark northern skies wouldn’t leave her. We should be grateful for the whims of creative fate because THE LAST TSAR’S DRAGONS (Amazon) is a well-written, clever novella that’s worth your time.

THE LAST TSAR’S DRAGONS (co-written by Yolen and her son Adam Stemple) follows the fate of the last tsar of Russia and his family as the revolution swallows them alive, much like his dragons swallow their prey. The tsar’s dragons have been trained to hunt the Jews of Russia, who live in fear of sound of wing beats. But change is coming on the eve of the first World War and revolutionaries like Lev Bronstein have plans to overthrow the social order — if only they can do it before being discovered or killed. The novella follows five POVs: the tsar; the tsarina who fears for her hemophiliac son’s life; Father Grigori, better known as the Mad Monk, Rasputin; revolutionary Lev Bronstein; and a faceless bureaucrat, tired to being overlooked at court.

I’ll leave the plot vague — as with most historical fiction (or fantasy) we already know the destination — it’s how Yolen and Stemple get us there. And they do a lot with a little. The story weaves together seamlessly and the POVs are distinct enough that once all five have been introduced, switching voices doesn’t slow the reader down. The character’s concerns and flaws, their vanities and hopes, the despair that haunts them in the night, these are all beautifully drawn in a limited space of time. Yolen’s been in the game for a while and her writing shows a true master at work.

The piece of narrative structure that didn’t go down as smoothly as the rest was the frame story. The framing narrator only speaks at the very beginning and the very end, and by the time I reached the end I had forgotten his existence. I had to flip back and remind myself what was happening the frame, which, I think, means that it could be just as easily unmoored from the story.

Russian history: now with dragons. Bringing history to life, THE LAST TSAR'S DRAGONS is a well-written, clever novella that’s worth your time.

Maybe I’ve just been really into novellas lately–EVERY HEART A DOORWAY (Amazon), FREEZE FRAME REVOLUTION (EBR Review), ALL SYSTEMS RED (EBR Review)–but I would argue that’s because novellas are kind of an amazing format. I know not everyone agrees. At first glance they might seem like the awkward teenager in the room: too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel. However, I’ve found that I really like the combination of short story and novel elements. Clocking in at a little over a hundred pages THE LAST TSAR’S DRAGONS provides the satisfying story arc of a novel with some of the careful attention to language more typical of a short story.

Bringing history to life and animating it with personalities and plot points has plenty of potential pitfalls for writers, but Yolen and Stemple avoid these with grace and wit. Whether or not you’re a real Russophile or someone whose entire understanding of revolutionary Russia comes from the rakish Dimitri in the animated Anastasia movie, well, you’ll have a good time either way.

  • Recommended Age: 12+
  • Language: A little swearing
  • Violence: Yes, but not dwelt on
  • Sex: Mentioned, a brief (not graphic) scene

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