It used to be that Russian settings for historicals were few and far between, with some notable exceptions like Robert Alexander's Romanov thrillers, Edward Rutherfurd's comprehensive Russka, WWII-era suspense, and the occasional literary novel such as Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter and Adrienne Sharp's The True Memoirs of Little K. One of my all-time favorite novels is Catherine Gavin's The Snow Mountain, an imagined story of Grand Duchess Olga, but it's long out of print.
In recent months, though, historicals set in Russia have been appearing in force. The story of the last Romanovs and their tragic end continues to be a favorite, but authors are also branching out to less familiar subjects and settings - all to readers' benefit.
Below are a dozen Russian-set historicals which were or will be published in North America between June 2011 and September 2012 - a wide variety of eras, personalities, and reading levels. For books not yet published, the covers are subject to change.
This first novel in the Katerina Trilogy for young adults blends historical fiction with romance and dark fantasy. A debutante attending finishing school in 1888 St. Petersburg has a secret talent for raising the dead, a power that she must develop and perfect if she's to help save the tsar and imperial family. Delacorte, January 2012.
Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad was a book club favorite, and here she returns to Russia with an elegant take on the life of Xenia, a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. Living during the reigns of Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine II, she was a strong-willed, devout woman whose purpose in life grew out of personal tragedy. Harper, August 2012.
In this sequel to The Siege, a young couple tries to forge a new life for themselves in Stalinist Leningrad in the early fifties. They get caught in a dangerous web of repression and grief when the husband, a doctor, is asked to treat the very ill son of a high-ranking official. Grove, September 2011.
This 3rd in the Inspector Pekkala historical suspense series (after Eye of the Red Tsar and Shadow Pass) takes place in 1939, when Russia approaches war with Germany. Pekkala, the tsar's former investigator, now works undercover for Stalin. His latest mission: return to Siberia, and the gulag where he was once prisoner, to find Nicholas II's lost-lost gold. Bantam, February 2012.
Harrison is best at taking snippets from history and transforming them into imaginative literary fiction. Enchantments takes place in familiar territory for Russophiles: 1917 St. Petersburg, just following the murder of mad monk Rasputin. A friendship springs up between Rasputin's daughter Maria, called Masha, and the young, doomed tsarevich. Random House, March 2012.
Americans will need to look north to Canada for Linda Holeman's (The Linnet Bird, etc) newest historical epic. In 1860s Russia, after kidnappers kill her husband and steal away her son, a distraught noblewoman fights to discover the boy's fate and bring him back. See if you can resist this beautiful cover. Random House Canada, July 2012.
Between Love and Honor is a new publication from AmazonCrossing, the retail giant's imprint for translated fiction, but French novelist Alexandra Lapierre isn't new to the US literary scene. Her novel Artemisia (2000), an international bestseller, looked at the life story of Italian renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Between Love and Honor, based on historical people, tells the story of a Muslim hostage who becomes a foster brother to Czar Nicholas's sons in 19th-century St. Petersburg. When he falls in love with a Russian noblewoman, he must choose between her and his Chechen heritage. AmazonCrossing, April 2012.
Sarah Miller's acclaimed novel of the four Russian grand duchesses who met their tragic fate in Ekaterinburg in 1918 comes with endorsements from well-known Romanov biographers. The story of Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia is retold in their own imagined voices, spanning the last four years of their lives. Atheneum, June 2011.
Mossanen's latest is a fantastical spin on the final days of the Romanovs as seen through the eyes of a member of their inner circle, a former orphan with second sight who becomes a close companion to the young tsarevich, Alexei. Aged 104 in 1991, Darya Borodina looks back on her long life and wonders what became of him, and if somehow he managed to survive. Sourcebooks, April 2012.
The tense paranoia of Stalinist Russia becomes its own character in Ryan's second historical thriller to star Captain Alexei Korolev, a cop with the Moscow Militia in the mid-1930s. A well-connected young woman has supposedly committed suicide, and her former lover, a bigwig security official, wants answers. I've read the first volume, The Holy Thief, which evoked the claustrophobia of the period extremely well. The UK title of this one is The Bloody Meadow. Minotaur, January 2012.
Moving away from both detective stories and the aristocracy, Susan Sherman's The Little Russian opens in 1903 in the Jewish village of Mosny in the Ukraine, or Little Russia. Berta Alshonsky sets aside her fond childhood memories of glittering Moscow to become a heroine for her people during the country's harsh pogroms. Counterpoint, February 2012.
Stachniak's newest historical novel follows Catherine the Great, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias, during her unlikely rise to power. As an obscure German princess sent to marry the Russian imperial heir, she was never destined to rule herself. Her story is filtered through the eyes of Varvara, a lady in waiting who becomes Catherine's spy and views her transformation firsthand. I reviewed this for Booklist last year and loved it. A forthcoming sequel will continue telling Catherine's story, but from her point of view. Bantam, February 2012.