Title: Daughters of a Dead Empire
Author: Carolyn Tara O’Neil
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, Retelling
Published: February 22nd, 2022 (Roaring Book Press)
Synopsis: Russia, 1918: With the execution of Tsar Nicholas, the empire crumbles and Russia is on the edge of civil war – the poor are devouring the rich. Anna, a bourgeois girl, narrowly escaped the massacre of her entire family in Yekaterinburg. Desperate to get away from the Bolsheviks, she offers a peasant girl a diamond to take her as far south as possible – not realizing that the girl is a communist herself. With her brother in desperate need of a doctor, Evgenia accepts Anna’s offer and suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of the war.
Anna is being hunted by the Bolsheviks, and now – regardless of her loyalties – Evgenia is too.
The year is 1918 and in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Anna’s family has been massacred by the Bolsheviks. The sole survivor, she flees, knowing that she will be hunted as soon as it is discovered that she is still alive, and meets Evgenia, a peasant girl, whom she pays with one of the jewels she has hidden away to take her south where she hopes to find safety with the White Army. Evgenia is a communist herself, and suspicious of Anna, but is in desperate need of money for a doctor and accepts the offer. But Anna’s pursuers are not far behind, and no matter where Evgenia’s loyalties lie, she too is being hunted now and they will have to learn to trust each other to survive.
This was such an interesting retelling! It’s based on the legend of Anastasia and I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction set in this time period recently so I was excited to pick this up. This was a fast paced and thrilling narrative throughout and there wasn’t a single boring moment. Despite being a retelling, there were many parts that followed the historical facts which made the story feel that much more real and atmospheric. The descriptions of the setting were immersive and despite the somewhat hopeful premise of ‘what if Anastasia survived’, it also takes a close look at these tumultuous years in Russian history, in a depth that I’ve never seen YA novels get into. There was a lot of violence at times, so content warnings are probably warranted for this book.
I thought that Anna was an excellent character and her portrayal felt realistic. She is a little reckless initially and I was constantly struck by how careless she was with disclosing information when she was trying to hide her identity from Evgenia. However, her arc was very well developed as she started to see the truth of what life was actually like for the common people and began to empathize with them. Evgenia was my favorite though, as hers is the type of perspective I’ve never seen in historical fiction novels set in this era before. She dislikes Anna for coming from a rich family, and doesn’t trust her. What starts out as dislike and enmity between the girls eventually grows into a strong friendship and I liked that this wasn’t instantaneous. They both had a lot to learn from each other and it was lovely to see how realistically this developed over the course of the story. Their wonderful enemies to friends arc was undoubtedly my favorite part of this book. One of the things that really surprised me in this book was the lack of romance – I can’t remember the last YA novel I read that did not have atleast a peripheral romance for the main character in it, so I enjoyed this one a lot.
Overall, this was such an intriguing read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Daughters of a Dead Empire was clearly a very well researched book and I loved this what-if take on the legend. The ending was more inconclusive than I would have liked as it doesn’t really indicate Anna’s fate or path going forward, but I suppose in a story like this, it does seem fitting to leave things there. If you’re a fan of the genre or of books set in this era, I would highly recommend this book!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!