Subtitled “A Novel of the Last Tsar,” Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy tells the story of the final days of the Romanovs – the family of the last Russian tsar – after their exile, as they move closer and closer to their pitiful execution in an isolated basement. It’s a grim story, to be sure, but Alexander brings it to life nicely, due in no small part to his choice of framing the story as the memories of their young kitchen boy, who waited on the family in their imprisonment. Alexander has done his research and then some; each and every character comes to life, and while we plunge fairly directly into the story, there’s never a sense of being lost or confused about what’s going immediately going on.
And yet, while the day-to-day plot is always clear, there’s a sense that limiting his focus so tightly on these final days hurts the book in some fairly severe ways. If you don’t know much about the Russian Revolution, don’t count on getting much background here. Want to know why the tsar has been imprisoned? Want to know what pushes their captors to kill them? You’ll get little help here, and that ultimately makes the book a little frustrating. Yes, it tells its narrow story well, and focuses in on its window of time. But in losing some of the context, the book suffers, with lots of decisions and ideas feeling vaguer or more uncertain than they should. In some ways, it almost feels like a sequel, with constant references to characters and events that we’re expected to know.
Of course, this being a historical novel, that makes some sense. Alexander is clearly an expert, and his choice of narrator frames the story as someone who assumes his listener is familiar with the context. But for the more casual reader, the experience is a little more frustrating. It’s still a gripping, involving story (the frame story aside, which never did that much for me), and his portrait of the tsar and his family is always captivating. It just feels like there’s so much context that the book needs to truly work as well as it should.