Nadezhda Durova is born to a Russian army officer and his Ukrainian wife. A disappointment to her mother, she grows up wild and indulged while her family follows the drum. When he father finally retires, she is suddenly faced with her mother's strictures and ideas of how a proper lady comports herself. Chafing under this contained life, Nadezhda runs away in the middle of the night on her magnificent steed, Alcides. Dressed as a Cossack, she conspires to join the army in the guise of a young boy named Aleksandr. Throughout the years, she serves with honor and bravery, eventually taking part in the horrific Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon. As Nadezhda grows up and joins the army, the young Grand Duke Alexander is also growing up in St. Petersburg in his grandmother Catherine the Great's household. He is groomed to become Tsar, witness to and victim of the great animosity between his father and his grandmother. Political machinations mold and form his adolescence and young adulthood as he is thrust into a position he never desired. Nadezhda escapes the life that society would impress on her but the Tsar cannot so easily run away from his responsibilities.
The novel is told from Nadezhda's first person perspective and third person limited from Alexander I's with a few short bits focused on Napoleon. Generally the shifts occur from chapter to chapter but occasionally, and slightly confusingly, they happen within a chapter as well. The narrative is not a straight chronology either, at least in the beginning when the reader needs to pay close attention to the date headings on the chapters to figure out where in history the story is, as well as which character is dominating the story line. Although the two major story lines start off quite far apart, they do eventually cross over each other in a somewhat surprising way. Despite their intersection, they still generally felt like two different novels rather than a completely integrated whole. The Russian history was well researched and seeing Alexander I's struggles with his position, his guilt over his father's death, and his almost platonic relationship with his own wife was interesting indeed. Nadezhda's story, unknown as it seems to be here in the West, was even more interesting. Her rebellion against society and the narrow life that she could expect to lead as a woman was completely understandable and her accounts of war and the suffering of the troops was brutal. The story was generally engaging with one exception: the unexpected revelation at the end of the novel comes out of the blue and although it apparently follows the very late revelation in the real Nadezhda Durova's memoir, it is confusing and disruptive for the reader. Aside from that though, anyone interested in the life of a woman who fashions herself as she wants to be or in the years of the Romanov dynasty that this encompasses will certainly enjoy this expansive novel.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.