Friday, December 7, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Book Review: The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade

Grand Duchess Anastasia,
or, as Meade calls her,
"Princess Anastasia."
By Bain News Service,
public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons.

We all love a good thriller, right?  We love it even more when it combines history, mystery, and exotic settings.  That's what The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade promises on the jacket copy.  Does it deliver?  Let's find out.

Full disclosure mode: I’ve also written a Romanov-based thriller, so I’m slightly biased, not to mention hyper-sensitive to the treatment of the subject.  So instead of addressing the plot, I’m going to focus on the elements themselves: the characters, the writing, the pacing, etc.      

Let’s start with the good:

1.  I was turning the pages pretty quickly in the first quarter to third of the book, thanks to the interesting characters Meade gives us, particularly two men named Andrev and Yakov.  They're from opposite sides of the tracks, one a Tsarist soldier and the other a die-hard Red.  Their paths cross as children and then again as adults.  Another interesting character, named Sorg, is an American spy in Russia who interacts with the Tsar's family in good times and bad.  Each of these men are intriguing and given enough personal background and motivation so that you start to feel for them.  A murdered younger brother, a murdered father, an unrequited childhood love carried into adulthood…there’s some good stuff here.  Their emotions feel real, and I got sucked in.     

Now let’s address the bad:

1.  This book is too damn long.  It’s almost all set up and very little payoff.  The extremely long, drawn-out scenes work well in the beginning of the book since you’re just getting to know the characters.  But once you look at the page number and realize you’re on page 300 and the rescue of the Romanovs has barely begun, it gets frustrating.  This is where an editor comes in handy.  Maybe Howard Books can’t afford one, or they can and that person was busy with other things while this book was in production.  All I know is there is no reason for this book to be 515 pages.  It could have been 300, easy.

2.  The frame is lame and nowhere near as present as the jacket copy makes it out to be.  If you read the jacket copy, you’ll think most of the book is about Dr. Laura Pavlov, a forensic anthropologist working in Russia who stumbles on clues as to what really happened to Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Romanov family, supposedly murdered in 1918.  The story starts and ends with Dr. Pavlov, but she’s present about as much as the main title and end credits are present in a movie.  This book takes place in 1918 for 98% of the page total. I still would have read it knowing this, but it would have been nice to have an honest representation on the jacket copy. 

The epigraph also promises that the book is going to connect Anna Anderson to this conspiracy/rescue attempt.  That was really all that kept me reading once the plot bogged down in the 200-400 page range.  Unfortunately, the only mention of Anna Anderson in relation to the titular conspiracy comes at the very end of the book, tossed away in less than a page, with a vague mention of a secret brotherhood being behind her seemingly uncanny knowledge of royal life at the Russian court.  

Really?  No one called B.S. on this?  

SPOILER ALERT.  Also, the book purports that Anastasia escaped the slaughter of Ekaterinburg, that Anna Anderson was a decoy sent into the world and trained by a secret brotherhood that tried and mostly failed to rescue the Romanovs.  Who these secret brotherhood members are is unclear.  But the book also never explains who it was that was found in the earth near the rest of the Romanov family.  It’s one thing to claim the body isn’t Anastasia because of unreliable DNA testing.  It’s another to say it wasn’t her because the real Anastasia survived, without offering a plausible explanation as to how a person who shared DNA with the rest of the family ended up in the exact same spot as Alexei yet we’re not supposed to believe it’s Anastasia.  That’s quite a coinky-dink, isn’t it?

And we’ll finish with the just-plain-ugly:

1.  The writing.  It’s bad.  Like, bad.  It’s clumsy and badly in need of editing.  There are lots of adjectives.  Lots of brand names, as if that suffices for a description of a thing.  The verbs are trying a little too hard in places like this:  “….I snapped open the leather briefcase on my lap and plucked out a file”.   "Snapped" and "plucked" in the same sentence just feel overwraught.

In other places, the storytelling is heavy and ponderous, like Andre the Giant trying to tiptoe:  
  • “I still recall the peaty wood smell when as a child I would leaf through the family album, filled with the faded images from another world.”
  • “Some events in our lives are so huge in their impact upon us that they are almost impossible to take in.” 
  • “It felt intensely cold.”  
I read sentences like this in my freshman year of college, in the intro to creative writing.  To be fair, I wrote some of them, but I also learned to realize I was wrong. 

A lot of the dialogue is unnatural and stilted, like the following line spoken by an old woman remembering the past:  “Of all the royal family, Anastasia was the  most rebellious, the most sparkling.”  Does anyone…would anyone…ever speak this sentence out loud?  Who says “the most sparkling”?

2.  George V refers to Nicholas II as Nikki.  It’s not the nickname I disagree with, but the spelling.  Why use “Nikki” as a nickname and not spell Nicholas with a “k”:  Nikolas?  It makes no sense.  There is no consistency, and it drives me bonkers.  

The same thing happens with Russian royal titles.  Meade calls Nicholas “tsar,” which is the Russian equivalent of “emperor.”  Yet instead of using the Russian title of “Grand Duchess,” Anastasia is referred to as a “princess.”  No one even halfway interested in Russian or Romanov studies would ever refer to her as Princess Anastasia.  Even the kiddie cartoon Anastasia gets it right and calls her Grand Duchess.       

Overall, I really wonder how the author’s previous novels earned “rave reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post.”  The craft just isn’t there, and I would have expected that to be recognized by the Times, if not the Post.  

Maybe that’s the real conspiracy.