Review: The Romanov Rescue by Kratman, Ezell & Watson
While there have been many people who have played "What If" games around World War I, most of them have been academic.
This is the first time I've seen an alternate history novel tackle it from a different approach-- not by changing the outcome of the war, but working out how to save the Russian Tsar and his family from being butchered by the communists.
Unlike most alternate history, this does not require the intervention of aliens, or the introduction of magic. In this case, all it takes is a series of normal, human decisions that one is surprised no one made the first time.
In 1918, a German General looks to the east and sees that Germany has done something unconscionable: they unleashed Lenin and his communist philosophy on Russia. Looking at the havoc and terror waged on the Russian people, In The Romanov Rescue, there is also a plan to fix what is broken. After all, Germany has so many Russian prisoners from the war, surely Germany could send a few back... on a mission to save the Tsar and the rest of the Romanov family. Cue the Lalo Schifren music, because we're about to launch Mission: Impossible.
Much of The Romanov Rescue focuses on training for an operation unlike any other. This is 1918, before the invention of any special operations forces. To us, it would look like reinventing the wheel. In the case of our heroes in The Romanov Rescue, they're designing the wheel without knowing what it looks like. They're inventing the flashbang, urban warfare operations, their own codes, and operating at night without night vision goggles, as well as navigating a ton of logistical difficulties. We even get to make fun of military food.
The writing is detail heavy. How heavy? I already knew that Tom Kratman is the master of military minutiae, because he's well aware that the little things can kill you in real life. Apply that level of detail to historical times and places, and you have a sense of how much detail is here. The sections involving the zeppelin are wonderfully claustrophobic, almost feeling like it's a submarine thriller out of Run Silent Run Deep--only instead of crush depth, the risk is falling out of the sky. There's a whole section on the care of military animals, occasionally making me feel like I was reading a militarized All Creatures Great and Small.
I will admit to being surprised by the lack of a lot of historical figures outside of the Romanovs. Trotsky, Lenin and de Gaulle appear, but are essentially cameos in the overall plot. But there wasn't a real need to focus on them. At the end, we have a subtle subplot come to a head as intelligence resources come into play. And then, that's when the fecal matter hits the rotary impeller.
While we do not have a cast on par with War and Peace, it is sizeable. I did not count them, but we have more characters than Lord of the Rings. If this puts you off, I submit that their sections are broken down into manageable chunks sizable enough so you remember who's who when it's necessary.
But our major focus revolves around a few people. Daniil is the head of the rescue operation as well as training, who has his own stake in the operation. The German General Hoffman is introduced in a way that makes it impossible to dislike him.
Another POV character is Tatiana Romanova, one of the Royal family, as well as two of the soldiers assigned to guard the Tsar and company. These sequences express just how vague and confused the situation on the ground was in 1918, to the point where some people barely know what side they're on, or what sides are there. This plot line is almost pure character development, showing just who is at stake ... until it culminates into a sudden twist. And let's just say that Alexei Romanov, who, historically, is best known for his hemophilia and being an entry point for Rasputin to entire royal circles, has one of the best moments of the book.
My personal favorite characters in this book revolved around the recon team sent to fight where the Romanovs are being held. Lt Turgenev is humble and smart enough to listen to sense when it's brought up the first time; he is noble and honorable, almost a paladin, but less D&D and more Have Gun -Will Travel. Turgenev and his recon team keep this book moving on at a nice, clipped pace. His Sargent Mokrenko offers an interesting, entertaining perspective on things, and there is a third character they pick up along the way who is also amusing.
I will admit that there was a brief moment early on where this felt like it could become on par with The Dirty Dozen -- but none of our heroes are slated for the firing squad, and they're not motivated by a de facto pardon, they're out to save their country. While every named character has a character moment, this isn't character heavy. Everyone has enough to deal with already.
Alternate history, or even just plain historical novels, require the same amount of world building and level of detail that any fantasy or SciFi world does. The Romanov Rescue meets that standard and exceeds it.
This does not go into insane, Tolkien-level detail on historical events, As a historian, I knew that the details weren't going to become overwhelming once the narration lacked any mention of the Allied Invasion Force of Archangel and Murmansk in January 1918 (which was supposed to fight against the Bolsheviks). While I do not exclude the AEF appearing in a sequel, it would have been irrelevant to the events of this novel... also, including the AEF would have probably broken the narrative flow. There is a piece of dialogue that suggests "What if there are other plots to save the Tsar?" which may have been directly address the AEF mission.
At the same time, there are no broad sketches of information here. Like every good technothriller, we get into insane levels of detail on the technology, as well as training and tactics, and just how things get done.
Though I do like the detail that local newspapers are always on the opposite side of the home country, even in 1918. The more things change, the more they remain insane.
There's even an entire page on Russian Orthodox theological impacts on the care and feeding of troops.
As an added bonus, this alternate history has footnotes.
It is less a matter of "Better dead than red," but more a matter of "Reds are better off dead, why haven't we killed them all already?"
There is violence, but nothing gratuitous. Rape happens, but not on the page, so the reader never has to deal with it in detail. There are some righteous executions which may not sit well with some people. I recall no language issue that stood out.
Who is it for?
There is a lot packed into this. This is for fans of Tom Clancy technothrillers, historical novels, military history, Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, and even All Creatures Great and Small thrown in for fun. To be fair, there are heavy dramatic elements of The Great Russian Novel, unexpected romance,
Why read it?
If you are a fan of reading just "how things get done," with a heavy dose of history, and killing lots and lots of dirty commies, you should be reading this already.
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