[Book Review] More history in my tsar and dragon novel, please.

Tsar DragonsBook Review: The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple

Canaries, you know those times when all you need to see is the cover, and you know (you know) the book is meant for you. Well, this was one of those. I was absolutely charmed by this cover.

Then I read the premise: Russian Revolution + Dragons? Yes, please. Sign me up.

And damn, for how good its premise and cover were, this novella came up so oddly short.

If you’re a fan of Russian history like me, you’ll be disappointed by the odd misses and factual inaccuracies. If you’re here for the dragons, you might be satisfied, but they’re not quite a driving force of the story. And if you’re there for the story and characters as reimagined by Jane Yolen and her son and co-author Adam Stemple, you might get distracted and bogged down in anti-semitic, sexist,  racist (take your pick of –isms) bits of the narration. It’s used to color the stories and perspectives of the characters, fine, but it sure didn’t make for a pleasant read.

In fact, when I started reading, my first impression from the heavy antisemitism was that this was going to be a sort of political satire on the time period—truth through dark humor and exaggeration, and there was definitely that in the first person narrator. But it never stayed over the top enough for that to work, and never felt tasteful enough to be cutting. And by the final third of the book, we were looking at a full on tragedy with the style and tone to match.

Now, I’m probably not the average reader for this – I know my Russian history and culture, and the big miss for me was just that. Yolen brought her masterful style, and the last few scenes were brutally powerful (though they had nothing on the actual account of the end of the Romanovs; Yolen and Stemple admitted to gentling that ending. Check out Michael Farquhar’s Secret Life of Tsars for a great historical look.).

But did the story work overall? I don’t know, canaries. I couldn’t see past the things that didn’t.

My Rating: One star.

I’m looking forward to seeing more reviews to see how other folks who aren’t as into Russian history take to the story. In the meantime, mileage may vary!

Canaries, what’s your favorite non-western historical novel? Would it be improved with dragons?

Review copy generously provided by the publisher.


Today’s Book Blurb: Tsars, Dragons, and what a cover.

The latest, greatest and (sometimes) strangest blurbs from the book world.

This week, I’m hijacking the blurb features with this pretty, pretty cover. Even if I wasn’t already a sucker for fantasy set in Russia, this would have absolutely caught my eye. I am intrigued. I am excited. Bring on the Ruski Dragons!

Tsar Dragons.jpg

“It is the waning days of the Russian monarchy. A reckless man rules the land and his dragons rule the sky. Though the Tsar aims his dragons at his enemies—Jews and Bolsheviks—his entire country is catching fire. Conspiracies suffuse the royal court: bureaucrats jostle one another for power, the mad monk Rasputin schemes for the Tsar’s ear, and the desperate queen takes drastic measures to protect her family.

Revolution is in the air—and the Red Army is hatching its own weapons.

—The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple


Canaries, what book covers caught your eye recently?


[ Pitch Slapped ] Dragons and the Perks of Being Straightforward

Let’s face it. The best stories are complex, convoluted little things. We love it when fantasy and sci fi attack the usual tropes from new angles and make the weirdest premises feel completely natural. That’s the wonder of it. But trying to put these ideas into a story’s blurb can be a real challenge. There’s barely enough space to write out the bare bones of plot – and that’s without that extra paragraph saying “Wait, wait, this makes sense and it’s actually really cool!” What to do?

But before we get into that, let’s see this week’s blurb from Amy Rareberth Mead’s dark epic fantasy novel, Dragon Marked: Continue reading

A New Year–and Dragons!

Happy Chinese New Year!

It’s the year of the dragon and, in celebration, we have flocked together to talk about our favorite dragons in literature. Here are ours; don’t forget to share yours in the comments below!

MoonblindCanary’s Dragon:

In middle school, the word ‘dragon’ anywhere on a book cover ensured that I would pick it up. So when I came across a book simply called Dragon by Steven Brust, I read the back cover and discovered it was about an assassin. I opened the book and slipped out of the library and into an impossible vortex of awesome.

I had stumbled upon my library’s only Vlad Taltos novel, featuring a bold first-person-smartass assassin with an equally sarcastic winged sidekick, and a cast of recurring frenemies and badasses.

I found these books at a vulnerable time in my fantasy reading; I had lost all patience for shiny little knights farmboys-come-heroes and surprise Jesus figures. Vlad was the snarky assassin counterpoint that I had been wishing for.

Then came the cultish obsession. Brust ensured that I burst out laughing a dozen times while reading in public. I bullied CanaryTheFirst into reading Dragon, and we made a tradition of exchanging Vlad novels as gifts for all holidays for the next two hundred years.*

It was of the best series I read in my formative years. I never would have discovered it if it hadn’t been for Dragon.

*figure includes future projections

TheOtherCanary’s Dragon:

As an elementary schooler, I read absolutely everything Bruce Coville published. As a premier fantasy writer for kids, it’s no wonder that Coville has a dragon installment in his collection. Like many of his books, the cnetral themes of the story dealt with kids who were bullied or just general outsiders who find solace in some aspect of high fantasy (unicorns, fairy godmothers, etc). And what better supernatural friend than a dragon?

I have definite memories of loving Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, of reading it over and over, and pining after the day when I would have a dragon of my very own. But upon looking up the plot of the book online, I was shocked to discover that not even a little of it sounded familiar.

Not the characters (Mary Lou, Mrs. Priest, Tiamat the Dragon), not the finer plot points of Jeremy using Tiamat to set his teacher’s shoe on fire, and not even how the story ended. In fact, I stopped reading the plot summary about halfway through when I realized that I didn’t remember even an iota of the story.

So here is my Chinese New Year Resolution: Re-read Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher and fall in love with dragons all over again.

Pirate Canary’s Dragon:

The dragon that strikes me the most is the one that doesn’t look like a dragon at first. She looks gentler, tamer, and much more familiar. Dragons aren’t dinosaurs, after all. She’s not in her game for meat, but for treasure. It’s the little things that tip you off: the hidden lair, the sparkling marvels she’s hoarded, the hungry look in her black button eyes…

I am speaking, of course, of the Other Mother from Coraline by Neil Gaiman. The Other Mother’s transformation from a near-mirror image of Coraline’s real mother into a spiderlike, screeching demon is one of the most delightfully creepy parts of the book (and Henry Selick did a masterful job of it in the movie as well).

She may hoard souls instead of gold, but who says dragons have to stick to tradition? The Other Mother represents the cunning side of dragons and the greed that laces their hunger. Without the human element, a dragon would be indistinguishable from a T-Rex.

With it, it’s a much scarier and more fascinating kind of monster.

CanaryTheFirst’s Dragon:

This was my first Barbara Hambly book, and it has stayed with me for years. I will be honest and say that like TheLibraryCanary and TheOtherCanary, I don’t quite remember what it was about, but it launched me into a brilliant world of witches, medieval realism, and shimmering, night-sky dragons.

Jenny stays with me as one of the most brilliant and brilliantly tragic characters, and her adventure with John–and then, later, with Morkeleb–had me coming back to the library nearly weekly, checking the shelves to see if maybe, maybe, there was a new Hambly book up.

I think it’s about time to revisit the Winterland’s series–DragonsbaneDragonshadowKnight of the Demon Queen, and Dragonstar.

the Library Canary’s Dragon

This vague memory of the book’s cover—burgundy, with a yellow moon—and its location on the library shelf—at one of the far ends, meaning a last name close to A or Z. That’s all I had to go on, trying to recall the dragon book that meant so much to me as an eleven-year-old. Cue fruitless searches at the bookstore and library, even a phone call to my childhood librarian. (Did you know libraries often delete records after two years of inactivity?) Finally I found it: Dragon’s Bait by Vivian Vande Velde.

Accused of witchcraft by her small-town neighbors, teenaged Alys says goodbye to her dying tinsmith father, and life as she knows it, when she is tied to a stake outside town as an offering to the local dragon. When said dragon appears, things take an unexpected turn. Able to transform himself into a (conveniently handsome, teenaged) human only slightly older than Alys, the dragon offers to help her take revenge on her disloyal neighbors.

Reading it now’s a different experience, of course. Subtexts leap off the page. There’s the unmistakable whiff of Morality with a capital M. Gone is the world I constructed around the story’s actual plot.

But what hasn’t changed is the strong female lead, bravely and honestly responding to unwanted circumstances, uncertainty, and her own fear. This was a story I really needed to hear as a little girl.


Those are just some of our favorite dragons. What are yours?


Read More:

[ Series Review ] Patricia Briggs and the Flying Critters

It’s confession time for CanaryTheFirst: series intimidate me. Trilogies, no problem. Anything longer, and I start getting nervous. Why?

Because I know that the moment I latch on to the first of whatever-have-you, I will be reading the entire series, first to twenty-first. Somehow, I will find the sequel as an audiobook on my mp3 player. The third of the series will clamber up from the shelf and into my bag. The fourth and fifth will end up on my desk at home. And the sixth–well, what’s the harm? Seven and eight follow on its heels.

So when I reluctantly picked up the first Mercy Thompson book (werewolves, urban fantasy, spunky female lead, yes please), I had already made a list of friends to call for an intervention. And when I realized Moon Called was not-bad-at-all, it just fed into my obsessive reading tendencies.

Exactly one month after I posted my first review of Moon Called, I’m back with more.

In the last 29 days, I’ve read the entire Mercy Thompson series (Moon Called, Blood Bound, Iron Kissed, Bone Crossed, Silver Borne, River Marked), swallowed the Alpha & Omega series (On the Prowl, Cry Wolf, Hunting Ground), gnawed through the Raven series opening (Raven’s Shadow), and finished the first Hurog book (Dragon Bones). I even picked up Patricia Briggs’ 1993 debut novel (Masques) before my library hold on River Marked came through and derailed that effort. I’m still waiting on a couple more books, but it’s probably time for a review–or ten.

I’ll start with the two classic-style fantasies, Dragon Bones and Raven’s Shadow: Continue reading