Mon February 28, 2005
The Romanov Prophecy
A tale of "chase and narrow escape, historical fact and speculation" that leads readers to wonder about the true survivors of a fallen dynasty.
By Don Noble
Everybody knows that poets don?t sell many books or make much money.
Fewer people realize that writers of literary fiction don?t get rich either.
Only one of the five novels nominated for last year?s National Book Award sold more than 3,000 copies.
Ah, but genre fiction?that?s a get-rich-scheme, right?
Genres, like platform shoes and women?s shoulder pads, go in and out of fashion.
When was the last time you saw masses of people reading westerns on an airplane or saw a legitimate science fiction novel on the best-seller list?
Steve Berry, a practicing attorney outside Savannah, liked John Grisham and Scott Turow novels, but he already spent his days in a courtroom with trials and jurors, so he didn?t want to live in that world at night, too.
He wanted to write international thrillers, like Clive Cussler and Robert Ludlum. So he signed up for a Wednesday night writing course, went every week for six years, and produced five full-length suspense novels.
His novels garnered Berry a total of 85 rejection slips. His agent must have been a saint: 10 percent of nothing is nothing, after all.
The problem was, since the end of the Cold War, the international thriller, even by a master like John le Carr?, was out of fashion. Publishers didn?t want them. Nobody was interested in Bulgarian spies with poison-tipped umbrellas.
But then Dan Brown rode to the rescue with The Da Vinci Code, a blockbuster international thriller, and, since New York publishers are as greedy, cowardly, and unimaginative as Hollywood producers, and American readers as herd-like as the 15-year-old-boys who fill the movie theatres, the genre was back.
Good news for Steve Berry, who immediately published his ?fourth? novel, The Amber Room, in 2002.
This is a story of stolen art treasures. First the Nazis in WWII looted them from everywhere, then the Russians and later some billionaire black-market collectors stole them from where they had been hidden.
The Amber Room was real: an actual room panelled in amber millions of years old and as valuable as diamonds, or so I?m told.
Berry followed this with his fifth novel, The Romanov Prophecy. His premise or donn?e is clear. The Russians, tired of the present corruption and chaos, decide they want to be ruled again by a divine right czar.
A commission, which includes Miles Lord, an attorney from Atlanta, is set up to find the descendant of the Romanovs with the most Romanov DNA.
One is found, but the reader learns that he is in bed with the Russian mafia. Miles Lord, partly following an invented prophecy of the mad monk Rasputin that Romanovs would one day reassume the throne, searches for the true descendants of Nicholas II and Alexandra.
After all, two of the children of the czar, Alexie, the hemophiliac son, and Anastasia, may have escaped the massacre.
Anastasias popped up all over Europe in the 20s and 30s. The mafia chases Lord and the Romanov descendants all over Russia, through Siberia, to San Francisco, and finally to Atlanta and then the Blue Ridge Mountains, which, we are told, resemble parts of Siberia.
This is an adventurous tale of chase and narrow escape, historical fact and speculation, lots of airports, and country dachas.
Miles Lord is a brilliant attorney, completely fluent in Russian, and an African-American.
When asked about that last part, Berry said that he not only wanted to write against stereotype, he wanted it to be very difficult for Lord, in the wildly dangerous adventures he would be having, to blend into the Russian crowds.
It is easy to like this story, if this is your genre. And as with The Amber Room and the upcoming novels set in the Pyrenees and in Provence, the research has got to be fun.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.