by Jennifer Laam
“A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter—smuggled out of Russia before the revolution—continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences.
In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her. Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra. After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie. Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy. Then as Veronica’s passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is thrilling from its first intense moments until its final, unexpected conclusion.” (via Goodreads)
The Secret Daughter of the Tsar isn’t my typical reading fare–it’s not fantasy, sci-fi, or YA, which I’ll admit have made up most of my library lately. But then, I’m also hard-pressed to figure out exactly which category it falls into. Parts are historical, parts are contemporary; there’s some mystery and some thriller in there too, and also some romance. Plus, it’s technically an alternate-history novel, so you could also call it speculative fiction. I can’t help but be interested in books that fall between the borders of genre, so this one tickled my brain a while after I finished it.
There are three main timelines following three characters: Veronica, Charlotte, and Lena. Their stories are clearly delineated, although it’s not until the end that their threads become obviously interwoven. I found Veronica’s and Lena’s stories most compelling. Veronica is a wonderful contemporary protagonist; she’s smart but full of self-doubt, but she also doesn’t hesitate to communicate her wants in a relationship or ask for space if she needs it. Despite her doubts, she’s got strength, and it’s wonderful to read about an interesting, nuanced Chicana heroine! There are also some funny moments that–hand to heart–made me cackle aloud:
Except she had no clue how to signal what she wanted. A hand on his knee? A sly wink? She wanted to feel sexy and wild. If only she had something sexy and wild to say. “Where’s your bathroom?” she asked.
Lena’s story is also engaging. She’s a genuine, brave woman, and I enjoyed her relationships with the empress and her mother-in-law, as well as her chemistry with Paul, the Black American guard at the palace. There’s so much warmth and well-meaning in her friendship with Alexandra that I didn’t want anything bad to happen to either of them (poor hopes for a Romanov storyline, I kn0w).
I found the beginning of the book slightly uneven, but in the thick of things, the pacing is good, and the plot skips along. The stories switch back and forth at tense moments that made me want to keep reading long past the end of my lunch break (and the beginning of my bedtime–I ended up having to set it aside because it was too exciting for pre-sleep reading! Got my adrenaline all pumping and stuff.)
While I enjoyed Charlotte’s storyline too, anything involving Nazis makes me kind of anxious, so I was basically reading with my eyes half-covered. I didn’t quite get as strong a sense of the danger that Veronica experiences later in her storyline; the drama was there, but the threat didn’t feel as immediate or as possible as it did for Charlotte. Veronica’s villains are a little exaggerated, although I got notes of nuance that kept them from being complete Snidely Whiplashes. I also didn’t feel Veronica’s chemistry with Michael as strongly as I did Lena’s chemistry with Paul, but I appreciated Michael for the role he played, and I did feel things come together a little more at the end. (Which is not to say that their smooching scenes weren’t well-written. Get it, Veronica!)
I’ve seen that some other reviewers had a different experience than I did, but I absolutely did not see the ending coming until it was practically on top of me. I’ll keep this review spoiler-free, but suffice to say that I was surprised–not in a bad way, but just in an oh, DUH sort of way that actually made me happy that I didn’t figure things out earlier.
Overall: It’s a tightly-written, interesting story with great female characters and relationships, and I’d absolutely read a sequel. There’s so much more to hear about Veronica!
Full Disclosure: The author is a friend and former coworker of mine. Nevertheless, I paid for my copy of the book with my own money, and I told her in advance that I’d be objective in my review.
Now, here’s the GIVEAWAY part: leave a comment (with a valid email address attached–US entrants only, please!) by 11:59 pm on Monday, November 25th, and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. The winner will be randomly selected and announced on November 26th. Good luck!