What, I ask you, would have been if the Tsar Nicholas would not only have had his Cossacks to harrow the provinces, and especially the Jews, but also Dragons? And if Lenin didn’t only have his Red Army to send out and spread terror, but if the Red Terror would have included Dragons, too?
Well, wonder no longer, Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple provide us with The Last Tsar’s Dragons, a revised version of their revised version of the history of the Russian Revolution, and of the days and events leading up to it, which includes Dragons. Because… – well because why not? It makes about as much sense as everything else that went on.
And so we join the last Tsar (not that he knows that he is!) sending out his black dragons to harrow the Jews – to absolutely no point, the Jews are safe, having seeded their shtetls with drachometrs, early warning devices. And so they sit in their underground burrows and let the dragons have a go at other targets, to the chagrin of the affected Russians and thus the Tsar.
But one of these Jews, sitting out a dragon attack, is Bronstein, latterly known by his revolutionary name of Trotsky, who has at some point tracked down another brood of dragon eggs in faraway lands, and is now hatching and imprinting them, to put them at the service of the revolution, under the command of his comrade Lenin.
Nominally the story is being told by a nameless (and essentially faceless, by definition) court functionary, telling it to his guard. It is also told with a lot of hindsight, as he describes himself as “a man who has turned against the revolution that employed him for nearly thirty years” – of course he was, as such functionaries do, employed by the Tsar at the time of the story. And freshly married, to the delightful and much younger Ninotchka, which adds some personal frisson to the story.
The developing story is told in multiple threads – the court functionary is the only one talking in first person (as it nominally is a first person account, you see), but we also see the Tsarina (the German Alix, as she is known in whispers) and occasionally the Tsar, but especially we get to see Rasputin, the mad monk and presumed saviour of Alexei, the Tsarevich suffering from his inherited blood disease.
Besides this we get to see a lot of court intrigue, and the manoeuvring of the main pieces in this story trying to stay on top, trying to stay ahead of the curve.
I won’t bore you with the actual story – the authors didn’t actually change the main outline of what happened, and the outcomes, so you all know what’s coming, unless you didn’t pay any attention in history class, or course. All this does is flesh it out with fictionalised accounts, and add dragons to the proceedings. Some things make more sense with dragons…
The only purely fictional character is the court functionary, and he (or any number like him) must have existed, we are sure.
So, overall what you get here is a piece of history, with added dragons, and told in a highly entertaining fashion.
This story exists in multiple versions, with different length and levels of details. I’ve come across this (or a shorter variant thereof?) in Rachel Swirsky and Sean Wallace’s collection People Of The Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy (splendid collection, btw, very much recommended). They don’t mention this publication in the notes to the story, so I’m not sure how it sits in the development of the tale at hand… and no, I did not go back to compare.
The book here contains the actual story (starting with the line “Your revolution is a lie” – stated by the nameless functionary), followed by a chapter entitled “A Snarky Note About Dragons and History” where the authors display their tools and the history of the tale; then follow Timelines (of actual events, of the Romanovs ie the Tsar’s family, and of the Revolutionaries), and a short section entitled About the Authors.
Now, about these authors. Jane Yolen has won multiple Nebulas and World Fantasy awards, amongst many other, and does not really need introducing, no? This story she wrote together with her son, the professional musician and Fantasy author Adam Stemple, himself an Award-winning writer with a good number of books, on his own and together with his mother under his belt.
More Jane Yolen
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
Title: The Last Tsar’s Dragons
Title: Fire above, Revolution below
Author: Jane Yolen
Author: Adam Stemple
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.tachyonpublications.com
Publication Date: 2019
Review Date: 190818
Topic: Russian Revolution