I received this E-ARC via Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I was really excited for The Last Tsar’s Dragons – who wouldn’t be, with a premise like it has? But I quickly found myself confused and then disappointed once I started reading. In an attempt to moderate my expectations, I took a break to see if I’d missed something and this book was aimed at a YA or even MG audience – I didn’t think so, but maybe I was wrong?
And maybe I’m still wrong, but as far as I can tell from Goodreads and various bookseller sites, this seems to have been aimed at adult readers, which means there’s really no excuse for how bizarrely simplistic the writing style and storytelling are here. Take my opinion with a pinch of salt – I DNF-ed this book at the 20% mark on my e-reader, 20% being my cut-off point for giving a book a chance to change a poor first impression – but… I read a fifth of this and couldn’t stand the idea of giving it any more of my time.
The content itself is horrifying, but in fairness, it’s absolutely meant to be – the story opens with the eponymous Tsar releasing his personal stable of dragons to go hunt and kill Jews; there’s no way we’re supposed to approve or find this light-hearted. That being said – while it can often be hard to read, good writers convey the horror of horrifying things. A reader’s difficulty in getting through a story can be – maybe even should be, in some ways – directly proportional to the writer’s skill, when the subjects include antisemitism, chillingly callous and unsubtle class-warfare, and the like. But I didn’t feel that that was the case here; these things were horrifying because they are objectively horrifying, and because I arrived at this book already feeling horror towards these topics, not because the writers conveyed that horror well or made me feel it. Honestly, the only thing this book made me feel was rapidly-mounting confusion – even with only an A-Level in History, which hardly makes me an expert, I know the conditions that led to the Russian Revolution were more complex than the simplistic and childish tone taken by The Last Tsar’s Dragons had any hope of conveying – which turned into frustration when the problems only worsened instead of getting better.
Bluntly, the writing here seems like a bland mess. I’ve read Middle-Grade novels that portrayed their characters with more complexity than the two-dimensional depictions here, and for some inexplicable reason, the writers can’t seem to decide when their characters arethinking to themselves in first or third-person – info-dumping introspection randomly switched from first to third person as if the writers couldn’t manage the transition between their characters’ direct, personal thoughts and the de-individualised, generalised ‘overview’ thoughts that are typically conveyed via third-person. And while most of the characters were written in third-person, one was written in first-person, which wouldn’t have bothered me except that there was no special significance to this character and no apparent reason for making him stand out in this way. The writers also utilised, for this same character, one of the tropes I absolutely despise, which is having a character think their (politically sensitive and dangerous) inner monologue out loud. That the character in this case openly acknowledged that this was basically suicide given the time and place he lives and works in only made me even more annoyed. I’m honestly unclear on whether I was supposed to be questioning his mental stability, given his grating, rambling, zig-zagging train of thought; on the one hand, I hope not, because if so it’s truly awful mental illness representation – but on the other hand, if I wasn’t supposed to be questioning the character’s mental health, then it’s extremely poor writing that led me directly to the conclusion that this was a man in desperate need of good mental health care.
There’s so. Much. Info-dumping. So much telling-instead-of-showing. The Last Tsar’s Dragons was always going to have an uphill battle – after the success of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which also utilised the idea of historical fiction + dragons, Tsar’s was going to have to do more than just be set in a different historical time period to stand against the inevitable comparisons between the two. Based on what I could bring myself to read, it doesn’t come close to succeeding. Novik did it better, and even if it didn’t have the Temeraire series to compete with, Tsar’s wouldn’t be a good book.
Tl;dr – a great concept taken out back and shot by terrible execution.
(Pun unintended, but unrepentantly cherished as the one bit of entertainment provided by this book.)