Note: Palate Cleanser will be an intermittent series consisting reviews of books that can’t conceivably be construed as “fantasy.” I personally find that reading outside your given genre is a great way to get excited again when you reach that point of having [insert number of books] on your to be read shelf yet not one of them sounds interesting.
Scandal! Intrigue! Cossacks! Here the world’s most engaging royal historian chronicles the world’s most fascinating imperial dynasty: the Romanovs, whose three-hundred-year reign was remarkable for its shocking violence, spectacular excess, and unimaginable venality. In this incredibly entertaining history, Michael Farquhar collects the best, most captivating true tales of Romanov iniquity. We meet Catherine the Great, with her endless parade of virile young lovers (none of them of the equine variety); her unhinged son, Paul I, who ordered the bones of one of his mother’s paramours dug out of its grave and tossed into a gorge; and Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” whose mesmeric domination of the last of the Romanov tsars helped lead to the monarchy’s undoing. From Peter the Great’s penchant for personally beheading his recalcitrant subjects (he kept the severed head of one of his mistresses pickled in alcohol) to Nicholas and Alexandra’s brutal demise at the hands of the Bolsheviks, Secret Lives of the Tsars captures all the splendor and infamy that was Imperial Russia.
Normally I try and review books much closer to publication time, but given today’s political environment, a review of how Russia came to be Russia seemed rather fitting. For although the Romanovs have been off the through just shy of a century now (97 years to be exact) if you look at the leadership of the Soviet Union and now Putin, there is a sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I want to give a tip of my ushanka to Mr. Farquhar, because he has managed an impressive feat: simplifying three hundred years in a way that, while still very much an overview gives you enough context and insight that it doesn’t necessarily feel shallow. Furthermore, an extra appreciated touch is that book doesn’t focus on the lurid. While he does, of course, mention the rumors of Catherine’s equine lovers, it’s dismissed as quickly as it is brought up. This is a serious history book and gives the subjects of the book the respect that they deserve.
The only thing I have a quibble with is that the art, and to a more limited extent, the summary almost imply that this might have a humorous element to it and I can’t say that it does. The author keeps what can be some dark history fairly light, but I wouldn’t call this a funny book, outside of a few descriptions in the introduction. It’s not a knock against the book, but it may not be what you’re expecting. When available, you might want to download a sample and see if it’s right for you.
As for me, I was pleased with it. I thought the book was well-weighted in terms of time spent on the various Tsars and there is a sufficiently detailed selected bibliography that it should give someone who wants to dig deeper plenty of places to start looking. It’s a good introduction to the Romanov dynasty and not a bad way to dip your toes in the very deep pool of Imperial Russian history.
Verdict: Buy It
Available: July 8, 2014