A debut historical novel depicts the fall of the Romanov family during the Russian Revolution.
In 1912, Charles Sydney Gibbes had tutored the Romanov children in English for about four years and had become a trusted extension of the family. Czarevich Alexei, the young heir to the throne and one of Gibbes’ pupils, is deathly ill, plagued by hemophilia, a condition his parents, Nicholas II and Alexandra, hide from the public. Out of desperation, Alexandra sends for Grigory Rasputin, an enigmatic holy man darkly and deftly drawn by Jorgenson, in hopes that his healing powers can revive Alexei. But Gibbes loathes the man, who has a reputation for coarse vulgarity, and worries that Rasputin's relationship to the imperial family has sullied its reputation during politically precarious times: “How holy could a man be if he were marked by a relentless devotion to fornication, adultery, drunkenness, boastfulness, and countless other corruptions?” Rasputin predicts the boy will recover, and when he does, that pronouncement takes on the air of a divine prophecy, elevating his status in the eyes of the Romanovs. But after Rasputin is murdered by political rivals, the Romanovs’ fortunes take a turn for the worse, and as a result of a popular uprising, Nicholas II is compelled to abdicate the throne. The imperial family is forced into exile and placed under house arrest, and Gibbes decides to loyally remain by its side to the morbid end despite ample opportunity to return to his native England. Jorgenson artfully brings to vivacious life the imperial family and showcases the full plumage of their moral complexity. Gibbes, too, is deliciously labyrinthine, especially when he wrestles with his respect for the religious faith he fails to summon for his own consolation. He is a brilliantly conceived portal into Romanov family life, sympathetic and intimate—Alexandra enlists him as her confessor—but still an outsider capable of some measure of detached objectivity. Most readers of course know in advance the plot’s conclusion, but it’s to Jorgenson’s considerable credit that this doesn’t dampen its dramatic power.
A mesmeric peek into the modern dismantling of the Russian monarchy.