THE LAST TSAR’S DRAGONS – YOLEN AND STEMPLE
Publisher:Tachyon Publications (11 July 2019)
Reviewed by Eris Young
The Last Tsar’s Dragons is a fantastical reimagination of the last days of the Romanov dynasty and the first days of communist rule in Russia. Written by the duo of fantasy powerhouse Jane Yolen and her son, Adam Stemple, a prolific novelist in his own right, and clocking in at only 182 pages, the book is a whirlwind tour through one of Western history’s most hallowed eras. The story follows a handful of characters – a tsar, a tsarina, and a mixed cast of advisors and rebels – through complex machinations, brutal violence, grief, anxiety and jealousy. And of course to complicate matters there are also dragons!
A story of this size must by necessity be fast-paced, quickly immersing the reader and avoiding deluging them with information, a constant danger in historical novels – and in other hands this story might indeed have become clumsy or cumbersome. But Yolen and Stemple manage it with aplomb, and while they might not have enough time or space to dig too deeply into every aspect of the complex dynamics at play during the fall of the Russian monarchy, they nonetheless manage to handle real historical figures and challenging themes deftly had often with dark humour.
In fact, the book likely benefits from the shared point of reference with most Western readers: even if we’ve not seen Anastasia, we’ve probably at least heard of the Romanovs, Rasputin, and the Bolsheviks. In this way the authors are able to avoid having to say too much before getting into the meat of the story, and the fertile soil of an era rich in theme.
Using the space they have, Yolen and Stemple quickly get down to the business of interrogating class struggle, minority oppression, revolutionary violence and anti-Semitism. The Last Tsar’s Dragons features a cast of characters who are almost all real people – from Rasputin and the Romanovs to the unexpected appearance of some famous communists – and to a one they are all unlikeable, in their own unique way. But where in another rendition this might have been off-putting, the strong voice of each character instead comes off as historically believable, and all the more engaging for it.
Yolen and Stemple glorify nothing. There is no hint of the romantic varnish that popular media so often tries to paint this era with. For Yolen and Stemple, dictators are dictators, anti-Semites are anti-Semites, and neither the Romanovs nor the Bolsheviks are heroes – if anything the heroes are the dragons!
Overall The Last Tsar’s Dragons is cheeky, wry, gruesome and sometimes shockingly dirty. It glorifies no one, poking fun at the characters in a style that reminded me a bit of Bulgakov. The authors are clearly masters of their form, with a well-proportioned story that doesn’t necessarily get too in-depth into character or historical detail. But the book is not meant to be a character study, or a completely new alternate history. It is speculation, not only because of the inclusion of the dragons but also speculation about the mindset of the characters – real people – in the final days of a very long epoch, and as these it performs admirably.