J.T.’s note: I’m going into this review aware that I might make some enemies with it. I know a lot of people enjoyed The Romanov Prophecy and one of my friends and fellow Russia bloggers loved the book. To my friend I can only say: you might not want to read this review, but if you decide to anyway, please don’t be offended!
Like many readers, I was drawn to “The Romanov Prophecy” by the author’s very original premise that an heir to the Tsar may have survived and might even be welcomed back to the throne by 21st-century Russians. An interest in this kind of history may be enough to make people like this book; however, even limited experience with modern-day Russia is enough to make other people (like myself) reject Steve Berry’s attempt to use this country as a setting for his Da Vinci Code knockoff.
Let’s begin with the writing itself. Writers are often advised to write what they know. Steve Berry should’ve heeded this advice. He doesn’t speak Russian, nor does he know much about Russia, as this book shows.
As a person with a pretty firm grounding in Russian culture and a decent one in the language, I found it exceptionally hard to work through this book. The incorrect Russian was like a persistent fingernail scraping across a chalkboard. Instead of Nikolskiy prospect, we get Nikolskaya. A babushka becomes a bobushka. And he dresses a Russian policeman in a woman’s hat or “shlapa,” (шлапа) which is actually written shlyapa (шляпа). I’m pretty sure he meant to write “ushanka”. That’s hardly an exhaustive list. Orleg (did he mean Oleg?) eats his bliny like an American, using syrup, rather than tvarog and jam. Berry misuses surnames as well. The “lovely” heroine, Akilina Petrovna, has a patronymic (middle name) as a surname (last name). Petrovna is a paternal name for a woman whose father’s name is Petr (Peter). The correct surname in this case would be Petrova. And her first name Akilina doesn’t mean anything in “old Russian,” though it means “eagle-like” in Latin. There is a Russian name, Akulina, which might have been derived from the Latin akilina, but don’t call it “Old Russian”. Berry’s English isn’t much better. Take for example: “And other than the man in the archives, whom he’d thought might be watching …” Whom is unnecessary; who would be just fine.
Overall, the writing style is best described as hard-boiled, staccato, and clunky. It’s like Berry wanted to make the movie adaptation as easy as possible.
Let’s move on to the plot and characters next.
Fiction is fiction, but I believe that an author bears some responsibility for accurately portraying the non-fictional parts of a story – in this case, Russia and its people. Berry’s future Russia seems to be based on early-1990s news reports from Moscow. Putin’s name is mentioned once, but otherwise the intervening decade conveniently disappears [the book was published in 2004 – J.T.]. An assassination-happy mafia provides stereotypical (if remarkably incompetent) villains regardless of current reality. They even conveniently speak surly and badly-accented English!
Don’t expect any psychological depth from Berry’s characters, either. Insights on what makes his characters tick appear as afterthoughts, plopped down on paper. Chapter 18 ends with: “Just like his father.” Clunk. Evil-doer Hayes stands on a hill overlooking Moscow where “the Kremlin cathedrals peaked through a cold haze like tombstones in a fog.” Is Hayes sensing his own death? He doesn’t appear to be. So what’s the reader to make of this image? Don’t dig deeply. My guess is that it’s only a doodad to give the work the semblance of the profound thought and observation expected in good literature.
Berry uses racism to add cheap conflict for his hero, African-American lawyer Miles Lord. In the book it is harmless, but the reality of Russian prejudice is much less charitable. Especially once he was on the run, Lord would have been scrutinized by every policeman he met, and most Russians casually refer to black people with a term that’s guaranteed to offend American ears. It is possible that Berry deliberately chose to water this down (he worked hard to establish “chornyi” (чёрный), or black, as a derogatory term), but it detracts from the authenticity of the setting.
Plausibility is an important quality of fiction. The idea that a visiting American lawyer could find archived documents (allowing himself to fulfill a prophecy, no less) where a generation of Russian and Western scholars have failed moves past insulting implausibility into the realm of the miraculous. But where Berry really lost me is where he wrote that DNA testing confirmed that Michael Thorn was directly descended from the Russian Tsar Nicholas. He stated that Michael’s “genetic structure matched Nicholas’s exactly, even containing the same mutation scientists had found when Nicholas’s bones were identified in 1994.” In the case Berry refers to, scientists tested mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed down the female line. Michael’s mother got her mitochondrial DNA from her mother. Her mother got hers from her mother, etc. If Michael Thorn’s mitochondrial DNA matches Nicholas’s, then Michael Thorn’s mother is related to a female in Nicholas’s mother’s family.
But wait a minute! How is that possible? Berry states that Michael Thorn’s mother, a Russian refugee living in America, was “Russian born to noble blood.” Tsar Nicholas’s mother’s family is Danish. Thus, the results of the DNA test actually mean that Michael Thorn is not the Tsar. Science has spoken; the story is in shambles.
I wish I could say something good about this book…wait, I can. I will admit that the premise was fairly interesting. Modern Russia brings back the Tsar. And while I will say that I believe this is quite implausible, it was a unique concept. And maybe with better researching and editing, it could have made an enjoyable book.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I got.
The Romanov Prophecy is best left on the shelf.
The Romanov Prophecy by Steve Berry. Pub. 2004 by Ballantine Books. Hardcover, 400 pages. ISBN13: 9780345460059