The Last Tsar’s Dragon by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple
Tachyon Publishing, pb, £7.71
Reviewed by Lucy Powell
“Dragons, like the bourgeois, respect only power. When they are fresh-hatched, you must be the only power they know”
The Red Terror takes on an entirely different meaning in Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple’s The Last Tsar’s Dragon. A novella – I was quite comfortably able to read it in a day – about the upcoming spectre of the October Revolution, the authors neatly explores the history of revolutionary Russia and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty… but with added dragons.
There is no one singular viewpoint in this novel, as it flits between various figures – most, you might recognise: the Tsarina, Rasputin, Lev Bronstein (also known as Leon Trotsky), and one noble Russian viewpoint character that is entirely fabricated to help move the story along. The first person narration of the novel is arguably the most enjoyable, partly because the other characters are so steeped in history, it is harder to get their characterisation right without sliding too much into exaggerated or caricature–like depictions.
Whilst the novel depicts a fun, and engaging concept – reminiscent of books like Android Karenina or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters – this melding of genres felt a little too shallow. Perhaps that was because I was familiar with the brief overview of Russian history this novel provided, but a lot more could have been done with it. Dragons – the Tsar’s black dragons who terrify and hunt Jews, and the red dragons belonging to the revolutionaries – seemingly just exist, with only a brief allusion to their backstory being given.
This book had the potential to expand out and really intertwine the dragons and fantasy like aspect of its world building. Instead, it rather seems to have missed the opportunity to do so. Yolen and Stemple depict a Russia we are familiar with in history books – not a Russia whose country had been home to these majestic beasts for years.
However, this is nevertheless an enjoyable read if you don’t delve too much into the detailed subject matter. I found myself nervously reading along as Rasputin’s failed assasination attempts were carried out, and the first-person narration chapters were arguably the strongest, and most exciting to read.
If you are a fan of history or fantasy, and like genre-bending books, then this is still worth a look as a fun, playful concept.