The Last Tsar’s Dragons

  • Review
By – June 24, 2019

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple’s The Last Tsar’s Drag­ons is an unusu­al con­ver­sa­tion between his­to­ry and fan­ta­sy. Set in Rus­sia on the eve of the Rev­o­lu­tion, as cen­turies of pover­ty and exploita­tion are about to erupt in a rad­i­cal rever­sal of author­i­ty, the book tells the sto­ry of the last Romanov Tsar and his fam­i­ly as they fall from omnipo­tent rulers to degrad­ed pris­on­ers. Rather than intro­duc­ing sev­er­al fan­tas­tic ele­ments into this well-known and trag­ic nar­ra­tive, Yolen and Stem­ple have writ­ten a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion with just one invent­ed ingre­di­ent: the com­pet­ing pow­er of drag­ons raised by the Tsar him­self and by the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who threat­en his rule. Like the prover­bial but­ter­fly effect of chaos the­o­ry, this sin­gle influ­ence will even­tu­al­ly deter­mine the fate of millions.

Anoth­er brac­ing fea­ture of this nov­el, which may sur­prise read­ers of some Romanov biogra­phies, is the authors’ rejec­tion of the tsar-as-vic­tim equa­tion. Yes, he and his fam­i­ly were bru­tal­ly mur­dered, an action which the authors con­demn in their after­word, A Snarky Note about Drag­ons and His­to­ry,” but Nicholas was not a hap­less inno­cent or a mar­tyr to his Chris­t­ian faith arbi­trar­i­ly tar­get­ed by blood­thirsty athe­ists. Yolen and Stem­ple por­tray both the tsar and his wife as lack­ing in empa­thy for the poor, con­temp­tu­ous of democ­ra­cy, and vir­u­lent­ly anti­se­mit­ic. The oth­er main char­ac­ters include the Jew­ish rad­i­cal Lev Bron­stein, lat­er known as Leon Trot­sky; the manip­u­la­tive monk Grig­ori Rasputin; and an unnamed mem­ber of the tsar’s cir­cle whose mono­logues express the divi­sions with­in the court as the monarchy’s pow­er col­laps­es. Yolen and Stem­ple do not even por­tray the young tsare­vich, Alex­ei, pure­ly as a pathet­ic fig­ure, although they describe his acute phys­i­cal suf­fer­ing from hemo­phil­ia. Like his father, he has been raised to view those out­side of his fam­i­ly with dis­dain, and fails to under­stand the dis­as­ter which the Romanovs have made inevitable.

Yolen is no stranger to drag­ons, hav­ing writ­ten both fan­ta­sy series and pic­ture books about them. In The Last Tsar’s Drag­ons, the tsar main­tains con­trol part­ly through the mag­i­cal ter­ror of these ruth­less crea­tures, until the ambiva­lent Bron­stein final­ly comes to believe that Jews and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies can retal­i­ate with their own breed of these mon­sters, whose red col­or sym­bol­izes an uncom­pro­mis­ing ide­o­log­i­cal vision. Bron­stein, Lenin, and Koba — the future Joseph Stal­in — are bru­tal­ly com­mit­ted to end­ing Romanov autoc­ra­cy; the drag­ons are a mech­a­nism work­ing through­out the nar­ra­tive, com­ple­ment­ing the accu­rate­ly ren­dered his­tor­i­cal tale. While hatred of Jews is far from the only sin of the dying regime, Yolen and Stem­ple empha­size how deeply root­ed this pho­bia is with­in vir­tu­al­ly every char­ac­ter who is not Jewish.

The pace of the nov­el is com­pelling, with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters’ per­spec­tives defin­ing alter­nat­ing chap­ters. Casu­al con­ver­sa­tion, metaphor, and inter­nal delib­er­a­tions all move swift­ly toward the vio­lent con­clu­sion. Yolen and Stem­ple have not attempt­ed a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­to­ry by throw­ing in the device of com­pet­ing drag­ons. Instead, their sharp and unspar­ing vision of cru­el­ty and chaos vivid­ly opens a new win­dow onto one of history’s most over­whelm­ing chain of events.

The Last Tsar’s Drag­ons is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for young adult read­ers as well as for adults.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions