The Last Tsar’s Dragons is an interesting little historical fantasy written by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple. Dealing with revolutionary Russia, this little volume represents a delightful amd multilayered example of the historical fantasy.
Opening far after the events of the book, we have a framing device in which our narrator describing how dragons no longer exist, and how he is not surprised that people don’t believe they ever did, instead preferring simply to put forth his story quietly and not be totally forgotten. I could attempt to find the information more
Characters are drawn relatively real to history, with an understanding of the reactions a modern reader would have to the politics at the time. As such ,rather than downplaying the political incidents, we have the Tsar and his wife seeing the jewish population as their primary antagonistic concern, a racism that is clearly put in parallel to Naziism, down to suggestions of extermination coming up frequently from one of the Tsar’s advisors. This is an interesting decision because while the racism in Russia at the time was beyond virulent talk of total deliberate extermination draws up a parallel in the mind to naziism that is often hard for a reader to stomach.
Amusingly the presence of the dragons plays into this well, as they are being used in the same way russian military and law enforcement were, specifically for an attack force, with the actions taken against the jewish population paralleling pogroms right down to the fact a certain percentage of the population has learned how to detect the events in advance and attempt to mitigate any coming damage. Further, one man, a writer who has become a bit of a revolutionary, is keeping something cold and wet and waiting to see the materials developed for the purpose of it. There is an appropriate reference to Red as I consider, andi know that it works quite well. In the end the dragons come through as a good metaphor for physical force, and for military might in particular, and how difficult it can be to control and work, how inherently dangerous it is.
The politics of the time are well spoken to, with conspiracies both left and right wing referenced to. On the one hand the reader hears people discussing revolution, bolshevism, and various possible ways to get out from under the tsar, and on the other the fact that the Tsar is getting old and distant, and his son is weak, leading to many questions as to what exactly will become of the line, and with it the country. These are all excellent points to play with. It’s a microcosm of these issues, true, but no single work should be expected to capture them in full.
The narrator of large portions of the book attempts to find a way to build some world that will work for him, as a group of jewish people attempt to deal with the latest fire attack. This is one of the oddities of the volume, as great sections seem in third person, wherein the narrator could not have known what was happening, certainly not in such detail. The attempt to build a life, and the destruction that comes with one’s plans crashing against another’s, even those one thought an ally, are impossible to avoid.
THere is a very nicely designed cover of a Russian castle surrounded by the Tsar’s appropriately Black Dragons, and it is a very nice and suitable creation of Elizabeth Story, who also did some design work inside the book between chapter headers and other little pieces of decoration that serve evocative purpose. Indeed there were times reading the proof when it was difficult to say if there was an unintentional ink spot or a deliberate evocation of ash.
Overall, I cannot bring myself to dislike any work I’ve read yet by Jane Yolen. That said, this is because I’ve never been really given reason to. In this case the conspiracies and hatrets of the characters are overpowering. This is a dark, painful book, and anyone reading it should know that going in. That said there is much to please in the volume, including the little details about how dragons work, what makes them comfortable, and how they effected the world.
(Tachyon Publications, 2019)