King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay

SPOILER ALERT!!!!  If you don’t know that the 20th century begins with World War I, don’t read any more of this post!

This book was a Christmas present for Drew many years ago.  We had both read a novel called The Kitchen Boy, historical fiction based on the end days of the Romanov family.  Drew had been fascinated with this time in history long before The Kitchen Boy even came out, but all it takes is a good book to fascinate you all over again.

Ever since he read it, he’s been asking me to check it out.  But you know how it is…there’s always another book waiting in the wings, and it’s difficult to place someone’s recommendation before your own.  This summer, however, with the heat of Las Vegas closing in on us, a book focusing on Russia, Germany, and England and the royal ties between them seemed like a welcome respite.  There’s also nothing like a tragic, Shakespearean historical tale to make you feel like whatever might be bothering you isn’t that bad.

The book is exceptionally readable for its undertaking — the author really tries her best to focus only on the most important players.  Even as a slight German speaker, I had trouble keeping track of all the members of Kaiser Wilhelm’s court — everyone was von ________ern this or zu _______berg that.  Tricky stuff.  So the extra bureaucratic players blended together into two groups  for each sovereign — those that supported monarchy, and those that supported democratic systems.

My favorite picture from the book -- Tsar Nicholas on the left and King George on the right. Look like twins, huh? Would you guess that their mothers were sisters? I bet you would. And you'd be right.

By the end of the book, I really had a handle on the personalities of all three monarchs.  They’re sort of like the Beatles — there’s the quiet one (Tsar Nicholas), the beloved one (King George), and the crazed, autocratic, militaristic one who can’t possibly lose touch with reality because to lose touch would mean that he was in touch in the first place (Kaiser Wilhelm).  I guess Tiger Beat would call him the bad boy.

It’s so difficult to get into the spirit of the times, though.  Sure, through our post-revolutionary eyes it looks like Nicholas should have seen the demise of his reign coming for years, but through the eyes of an autocratic ruler who believes that God has placed the country under his care, and whose predecessors had, for DECADES, survived assassination attempts and revolutions — well, then it’s a little more difficult to see.

Tsar Nicholas, King George, Kaiser Wilhelm

Monarchy had to fall at some point, and it’s the poor luck of these three cousins to be the last ones.  The Kaiser is the most intriguing man here, because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next, but you know it’s something crazy.  This book posits that World War I is his fault — and it’s hard to see otherwise — because he felt shunned by England and Russia.  England hurt the most, though — Queen Victoria was his grandmother, and he was always torn between being German or being English.  Willy lives with a paranoia that England and Russia are plotting against him, and so he strengthens his army and builds up his navy as if to say, “Now you HAVE to pay attention to me.”  But the author doesn’t let the other two off the hook — they DID ignore Wilhelm to a certain extent, and could have changed the course of history by not creating an alliance with France that blatantly dismissed Germany…in fact, it was really in case of war with Germany.

The Tsar and his children

So, in conclusion…I don’t know.  To quote Monty Python, “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”  (That’s a deep cut, if you don’t know the quote.)  It does seem pointless to try to find out who was the first monarch at fault.  What is certain is that it was the perfect series of events to bring about the abdication of two monarchs — Wilhelm was forced to abdicate at the end of the war, and he was exiled to the Netherlands;  Nicholas was also forced to abdicate by revolutionaries in Russia, and the rest of his life plays out much more sadly…whereas it’s difficult to feel sympathetic to the Kaiser, it’s easy to feel sympathy and sadness for the Last Tsar and his family.  George is the only one who made it through the war unscathed, thanks in equal parts to the constitutional monarchy of Britain, which made the war not the fault of the king alone, and to his displayed attitude during the war.  The royal family put themselves on war rations while the war was going on, and made sure the British people saw they were doing it.  His upbringing helped him succeed here where his two cousins failed — Willy and Nicky never knew life without luxuries, but George, who was not the eldest son, had been in the Royal Navy for years, and not just in a non-combat role.

Obviously, I have a lot to say about this book and the history in it.  So let’s just wrap it up — I liked the book.  It was clear, interesting, opinionated, and you can’t create more fascinating characters or situations.  History makes the best books.  I feel bad for all the characters in it, just playing out the parts fate has dealt them as best they can.  And I feel like watching Fall of Eagles again, even though it was campy, 1970s BBC.  Since we’re seeing so many remakes anyway, how ’bout it, Hollywood?  You can’t get a better story than this.

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His Majesty’s Dragon and Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Every summer deserves summer reads.  These two get my vote for the “summerest” of the reading I’ve done so far in 2011.  And, lest you think I’m being pretentious, this isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, at the beginning of the summer, freshly exhausted from the taxing end of year inventory checks, grade entering, and menial cleaning jobs that fill a teacher’s last days of the school year, all I’m looking for is a book where I won’t have to think much.

These delivered a respite from stress and heavy thought.  PERFECT.   A new series, optioned already for movies by Peter Jackson, about dragons during the Napoleonic Wars.  Drew is a Napoleonic war fiend, thanks to Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey books, and he turned me on to this new, fanciful series.

Full disclosure– they are SUMMER READING.  There’s not much going on metaphorically or below the surface, but the main dragon in the story, Temeraire, is the sweetest character ever.  He is a dear, dear, dragon.  My favorite moment in the first book comes when Temeraire and his Captain, Laurence, are walking up a mountain.  At this point, Temeraire is only a few months old, and still small enough to go on hikes with Laurence.  (He gets much, much bigger.  Much.)  He becomes fascinated with a little shiny pebble on the hike, but it’s too small for him to pick up in his talons, so he gently pushes it up the hill with him so that Laurence can pick it up for him.  Sweet, sweet, dragon.

The historical parts of the books are fun, but a little odd.  Military leaders act in unusual ways, that work well with the plot points, but seem ill-befitting to a military force in the middle of a epic war.  Temeraire proves to be a valuable dragon in a fight, and yet in the second book, the Admiral lets the Chinese take him away, because…I’m not sure exactly.  Doesn’t sound like something many fighting forces would consider.   But, as with so many summer reads, suspending belief and criticism is important for enjoyment. Even though they are speculative historical fiction, they remind me a lot of the Arthurian books I used to devour — a slight nod to history, but changing whatever gets in the way of the narrative.

The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence is the reason to read the books.  Every kid wishes for some kind of fantastical pet, and although it is clear that the dragons aren’t pets in this world, I still can’t help but wish for a dragon of my own.  Temeraire is wholly devoted to Laurence, and Laurence sacrifices all normalcy from his life in order to serve his country with Temeraire.  The kind of commitment they feel for each other is touching and desirable for the kid in me who used to love fantasy books.

It reminded me a little bit of the Dealing With Dragons series by Patricia Wrede.  Those books were much more in the realm of fantasy, and contained no historical base at all, but they were so much fun.  I loved Princess Cimorene, who because bored with her princess life and abandoned it to become a cook for a dragon instead.  The cover of that first book left me daydreaming for hours — look at how defiant she looks, even in the face of a huge, monstrous dragon!  So many fantastic role models in young adult fiction…I have to reread that one.

After finishing the second Temeraire book, I was ready to jump into the third book, but took a small hiatus for some actual historical reading — no dragons in my book now.  But after I finish reading about the fatalistic, depressing events that led to World War One, I’ll be ready to get back to a world where dragons roam the air.

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