Review: The Romanov Prophecy

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

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6 comments

  1. Restoration of monarchy in Russia, huh? How about this (not by me – honestly stolen and translated):

    “My dearest “babushka”, Lizaveta Georgievna! I’m writing you this missive from the northernmost frontier of Ours most heartily beloved Empire, where my august personage is currently with an inspection. I congratulate you with the past Christmas and wish the Best from Lord our Christ. Tuskhyonka here is the most tasty I’ve ever eaten, from Yoshkar-Ola, and also I have an entire kettle of pasta each evening. What I can’t eat physically I’m feeding to our white bear Umka, which was gifted to me by the local somojeds recently.

    But yesterday I had a very nasty tongue-lashing from the chancellor. Vladimir Vladimirovich dragged me personally from samoyed’s choom and most graciously deigned to okhuyachit’’ my humble self with a scepter. Why, he said, the Northern Trade Way delivery to Alaskan gubernia is fulfilled only by 70%? What an oversight. We here are very strict with this stuff, not like bald Willie and his Kathie eating grouses at hippodrome in Ascot!

    I also decided to give the Streltsi prikaz to the brave and mighty batyr Kuzhegerovitch as it’s been previously under chancellor’s rule. I’m still confused by their Asiatic terms, but getting used to them by and by. I even learned how to assemble/reassemble their AK in just 1 minute, and local vodka is much, much powerful when compared against the Scottish whiskey.

    With which I’m bidding you farewell, my dear Lizavetha Georgievna. Fare thee well, my most beloved granny, and send my salutations to daddy and stepmother (let St. Kondratiy visit her at least once!).

    Czar Igor III of all Russia.”

    P.S.

    Bonus points for you, J.T., if you name the classic of Russian literature ruthlessly referenced/parodied here! Double bonus points for knowing the significance of St. Kondratiy and “wishes” for him to visit once enemies.

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  2. You probably know it already, but “black” is indeed derogatory term, but only when in use about people from Caucasus and Asia.

    Book does sound like some Da Vinci Code fan fiction. And about as “intellectual” as Dan Brown’s “masterpiece”.

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  3. This was a very interesting review for me as both a Russia analyst and as a fiction writer. All the craft classes and books I’ve read, as well as advice from agents and editors who have blogs, suggest not doing most of the stuff you mentioned that this author did. Just bad writing all around. I also wonder how he got published as most agents will want to know what your special expertise is in writing about Russia (or some other culture or historical period) when it’s used as the backdrop. I’m tempted to pick up a copy of the book just to see who the publisher and the author’s agent are.

    When I ever do write a novel set in Russia, I’m going to try to recruit you as a beta reader to make sure I’m getting things right before I submit it. 🙂

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    • Maybe it’s because Berry had written several books – many of them bestsellers – before he wrote this one and the publisher/agent saw his success and just rubber-stamped the book for publication. And here’s part of his BG with history:
      “History lies at the heart of every Steve Berry novel. It’s his passion, one he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, which led them to create History Matters, a foundation dedicated to historic preservation. Since 2009 Steve and Elizabeth have crossed the country to save endangered historic treasures, raising money via lectures, receptions, galas, luncheons, dinners and their popular writers workshops.”
      Not much about Russia seems to be here. Likely, he visited Russia as a tourist, saw Red Square, the Kremlin and the Winter Palace, and was like: “hey, this would be a great setting for a thriller.”
      BTW, I’d be happy to help you as a beta reader when you eventually write your Russia novel. You know where to find me 🙂

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