The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple
The Last Tsar’s Dragons (2019) is frustrating, both as a reading exercise and in retrospect, when I think about how universally lauded Jane Yolen is and that Adam Stemple, her son, is a well-regarded author in his own right. So take a master storyteller and her progeny, begin with the political tar pit that was the Russian court in the last days of the Romanovs, and add revolutionaries and literal fire-breathing dragons into the mix…
What should, by all expectations, be a fascinating story meanders between various viewpoints, skips through its timeline with no clear indications as to when events are occurring with relation to one another, and makes absolutely no good use of the titular dragons, who come off as a blatantly obvious metaphor for whatever tool of destruction is most applicable in the moment. Key characters generally lack the depth of their Wikipedia biographies, the basic plot itself is too well-trod with no new perspectives or information, and I didn’t understand why dragons were involved at all until I read the collaborative essay at the end, “A Snarky Note About Dragons and History,” in which Yolen mentions that she wanted to give the Romanovs a kinder end than the historical reality. In fact, without those authors’ notes, I had no idea when events took place or who some of the featured characters were; Yolen and Stemple appear to assume that their readers are intimately aware of the events and actors of the Bolshevik Revolution, and spend little time explaining details to readers who aren’t in that category. (If you don’t know the specific nicknames and adopted identities of key Bolsheviks, you’ll have to rely on the notes for clarification.)
Yolen and Stemple acknowledge the dragons-as-metaphor concept in their notes, and yet there’s nothing the beasts do which is essentially draconic and which couldn’t be done — and wasn’t done — by men and machines working for or against the Tsar. The dragons could just as easily be men carrying firearms, bombs, flamethrowers, or any number of dangerous weapons. The constant harassment and outright murder of Russian Jews, in particular, is properly accounted for and yet there’s no new insight or appreciation for what that experience was like by viewing it through a fantastical lens. Moreover, if dragons had been used by the Tsar and were known to exist, one would reasonably expect to see that reflected somehow in the larger world, but beyond a mention of some Chinese eunuchs and the destruction of their dragon eggs in 1923, dragons may well have never existed.
Of the viewpoints presented, the strongest character is Tsarina Alexandra, whose frustration at being a German-born outsider within the Russian court, amid fears for her family’s safety, are clearly and sympathetically portrayed. Her struggle to maintain a sense of security and balance could have been The Last Tsar’s Dragons’ primary viewpoint with no detriment whatsoever, and could have easily supported a longer novella or even a novel. The Bolshevik revolutionary Lev Bronstein, who forms secret plans and alliances to bring down the Tsar, was the second-best character, providing a window into the compromises and frustration he and so many of his comrades experienced during that crucial flashpoint in world history. Less effective are Tsar Nicholas II himself, the lecherous and mad monk Grigori Rasputin, and an unnamed aristocrat seeking only to further his own wealth and ambition.
As with any collaborative effort, there’s always a question of how much content was contributed by each party, and I’m not well-read enough in Yolen and Stemple’s individual works to try to guess at who did what. While I was unimpressed with The Last Tsar’s Dragons, I’ll continue to seek out Yolen’s work in particular, as her novels and short stories tend to appeal to me.