Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple – The Last Tsar’s Dragons

Title: The Last Tsar’s Dragon
Authors: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

It is the waning days of the Russian monarchy. A reckless man rules the land and his dragons rule the sky. Though the Tsar aims his dragons at his enemies—Jews and Bolsheviks—his entire country is catching fire. Conspiracies suffuse the royal court: bureaucrats jostle one another for power, the mad monk Rasputin schemes for the Tsar’s ear, and the desperate queen takes drastic measures to protect her family.

Revolution is in the air—and the Red Army is hatching its own weapons.

Rating: Burned to a crisp

I do have to point out, that I expected something very different from what I got. Sure, the blurb talks about revolution, Bolsheviks and Rasputin, all things we are familiar with, but I still expected a different Russia. After all, this world has dragons. One would think, that the existence of dragons would change the world in some way but the Russia in The Last Tsar’s Dragons is exactly the one you know from the history textbooks. Only that Tsar Nicholas has dragons.

Well, that’s not 100% true. While the real Nicholas had five children – Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – who all died with him Yekaterinburg, the Nicholas from the book has a son called Alexei, a daughter called Anastasia and two unnamed daughters who are still alive, and a daughter called Sonia who died of an illness before the book started. But considering none of that is in any way relevant to the plot and the afterword just tells us that the Romanovs were among the characters in the book that were real, without any caveat about how they didn’t actually have a daughter named Sonia, my guess is that the authors couldn’t be bothered to look up basic facts. This makes sense, since they also didn’t consider it necessary to run their German by an actual German speaker. And so the Tsarina says “Ein Fluch auf ihrem schmutzigen Drachens!” at one point.

Fun fact: I spent a lot of time yelling about Google Translate not being a reliable source but in this case it actually gives you the correct translation of “A curse on their dirty dragons” which would be Ein Fluch auf ihre schmutzigen Drachen. Bing Translate does worse with Fluch an ihren schmutzigen Drachen, but even they know that Drachens isn’t a German word, so I really have no clue how they managed to get it that wrong. Perhaps one of them once did learn German, just like they once learned Russian history and then were so convinced of themselves that they saw no need to check their vague memories.

Anyway, after this short diversion, back to the actual book. Which, as mentioned is The Russian Revolution with dragons. That means, that while the Tsar is busy being stupid and evil and antisemitic, his wife being German, stupid, evil and antisemitic, Alexei being sick, spoilt and evil and Rasputin being evil, creepy and antisemitic, somewhere else Lev Bronstein, a Jewish peasant, has found some dragon eggs and is trying to hatch them himself – a dangerous feat, since only the Tsar is allowed to own dragons. Bronstein is supported in this endeavour by his old friend Wladimir Ulyanov who has also brought a questionable Georgian character called Koba along who acts as a bodyguard for the eggs – and later the hatched dragons.

You probably know all those gentlemen under different names. Bronstein is more well known as Leon Trotsky, Ulyanov changed his name to Lenin and Koba is an early nickname of Joseph Stalin.

Yeah. I definitely did not expect that. And granted, I knew I was reading a fantasy book based on the Russian Revolution, an event that was very bloody and violent and which lead to decades of more death and violence. It’s not that this is the only book that ever did this. The Waning Moon books are set in a pseudo-Russia on the eve of a Revolution (including a character that seems to have been inspired by Rasputin and Stalin). The Poppy War is the Sino-Japanese war with magic. There are certainly many other examples and I think you can take a horrible atrocity, add dragons, mermaids or whatever and be tasteful about it. I don’t think it works when you make the actual architect of some of these atrocities – not even some thinly disguised version, not some conglomerate of several people – in a character in the book. Admittedly, while Trotsky is a POV-character in the book, Lenin plays a much smaller role and Stalin says only two or three sentences. But still: There’s a Wikipedia page Excess Mortality under Josef Stalin. In this book he plays bodyguard for some dragon eggs. I am uncomfortable with this.

But, YMMV and all that and neither Stalin nor Lenin are portrayed as likeable characters, so perhaps some people are OK with that. If you are: I’m not judging you (I do read a lot of other judgeworthy stuff myself after all). But I will inform you that it’s still a very boring book. Because, when I say “this is the Russian Revolution with dragons”, I’m speaking very literally. Do you have the most basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution (as in “the Bolsheviks took over, the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and later executed”)? Do you know the Boney M song Rasputin? Great! Then you know what happens in this book*. I mean it’s the Bolsheviks take over with the help of dragons, but since that happens off-screen, you won’t get much out of reading it. No, I’m not kidding. With the exception of Rasputin’s murder, all the action happens off-page and is then summed up in a few sentences. That is…not great. Of course, it’s a novella, and in the afterword the authors explain that they originally planned a full novel but couldn’t find a publisher, only one who would take a novella. But then you can’t just take the novel and leave enough stuff out to make it fit the novella length. Especially if the stuff is essentially the climax and you’re left with what’s more or less a retelling of historical facts.

*though not even the Rasputin here is the lover of the Russian Queen, but apart from that the lyrics are fairly accurate

ARC provided by NetGalley

The Division Bell Mystery

Title: The Division Bell Mystery
Author: Ellen Wilkinson

A financier is found shot in the House of Commons. Suspecting foul play, Robert West, a parliamentary private secretary, takes on the role of amateur sleuth. Used to turning a blind eye to covert dealings, West must now uncover the shocking secret behind the man’s demise, amid distractions from the press and the dead man’s enigmatic daughter.

Originally published in 1932, this was the only mystery novel to be written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the first women to be elected to Parliament. Wilkinson offers a unique insider’s perspective of political scandal, replete with sharp satire.

“But, sir, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t get murdered in this place when you think of the opportunities.”

Rating: 4/5 of John Bercow’s fabulous ties

The mystery itself is quite average. A murder in a locked room (really, those are dangerous places, it seems to be much safer to be out in open spaces, possibly surrounded by your enemies…), an amateur sleuth who semi-reluctantly gets involved in the whole affair (after the victim’s very beautiful daughter asks him very nicely) and police who are only semi-bothered by said amateur meddling in their investigation.

The uniqueness of the story comes from the fact that the locked room isn’t situated in a country house but in the House of Commons. And that the book was written by an MP (and minister) who had an actual insight into the going-ons there, so the setting isn’t just some nice window-dressing, it’s an important part of the story and it feels real. And more than that: Wilkinson also had actual insights into politics itself…and a sharp tongue (feather? typewriter?) so we are treated to paragraphs like that:

[h]e was always assuring himself that some time or other he would settle down and find out how the country ought to be run, and why politicians made such a mess of running it. But as a popular young bachelor he found life too interesting at any particular moment to acquire sufficient of that knowledge to be awkward to his party whips.

Additionally, Wilkinson also had actual insights into being a woman in politics (and some idea of what men thought them):

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? He came from an old political family. Had one of the women of his family ever asked why she should help?

Poor Robert…you almost feel sorry for him.

“Oh Damn these modern women,” he thought desperately. If only they would be either modern or just women, but the combination of the two was really unfair on a fellow who had to deal with them!

Almost.

And all of this was brilliant. But it also made it somewhat hard to read. I am going to assume that you haven’t been living under a rock and that you know what’s currently going on in (British) politics so paragraphs like this:

I’ve often wondered, West, what it is that happens to most men – not all, of course – when they get into a Government […] I remember when a previous Government was within three days of dissolution and a smashing defeat talking to a Cabinet Minister who was calmly making plans for the following years.

will make you laugh first and then depress you because this book was written in 1932 and things really haven’t changed much, have they? And that’s probably the reason it took me so long to read it. Because even a hilariously witty look at politics is still…well a look at politics and who wants to do that in their free time right now?

But really, this isn’t me saying that you shouldn’t read this book. Just…be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into? Because I picked it up in the middle of the major Brexit chaos and after watching MPs shout at each other for hours, the thought of picking up a book where MPs solve murders (and also shout occasionally) really wasn’t that appealing.