Drawn images depicting the two girls from the story, houses, jewels, the sickle and hammer, and the roof of a Russian palace laid out in a blue and white pattern with the book title in gold.

About the Book

Title: Daughters of a Dead Empire
Published: 2022

Cover Story: Wallpaper
BFF Charm: Big Sister
Talky Talk: Realistic Slice Of Life
Bonus Factor: Retellings
Anti-Bonus Factor: Politics
Relationship Status: Running Partners

Content Warning: There are semi-detailed depictions of torture (beating, fingernail pulling) and not-super-detailed flashbacks to when Anastasia’s family (which includes children) is shot and killed.

Cover Story: Wallpaper

This is reminding me of those toile-patterned wallpapers or china patterns. There are plenty of variations on this kind of “intricate pattern with homages to the story” cover from the last few years, but, honestly, it’s one of my favorites of the modern YA trends. (I thought the cutesy cartoon covers were fun too when they first started, so I’m sure publishing will ruin this somehow, too.)

The Deal:

*sings* Have you heard? There’s a rumor in St. Petersburg… *sings*

Ahem. Wrong retelling. In this version, we meet up with “Anna” a day after she’s escaped her family’s grisly fate as she seeks to put as much distance as possible between her and the Cheka soldier who killed them. With no money except the jewels sewn into her corset, Anna bargains away a diamond to a passing merchant, Evgenia, for a ride to the nearest train station. Unfortunately, it’s the worst bargain of Evgenia’s life as she, a proud Bolshevik, unwittingly becomes complicit in giving aid to the last-standing royal member of Nikolai Romanov’s line.

Now they’re both on the run, and it seems the only person they can trust is one another. Is it possible to find common ground when you have such diametrically opposing views?

BFF Charm: Big Sister

BFF Charm Big Sister with Clarissa from Clarissa Explains It All's face

Let’s face it, I would be able to do jack-all to help them as their big sister, but I don’t think Anna or Evgenia need one more scared friend tagging along on this twisted tour of backwoods Russia.

O’Neil does a good job of making both Anna and Evgenia well-rounded characters who react pretty realistically to their situations, in that they aren’t kicking ass and taking names and single-handedly fixing an entire revolution; they are just two scared young women who, through luck and circumstance, barely manage to stay one step ahead of a murderous fanatic. They’re going to need some intense therapy and a shoulder to cry on, and I could at least offer one of those things.

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

There is no time for even the mere thought of romance.

Talky Talk: Realistic Slice Of Life

I feel like this was O’Neil’s attempt to answer the question of “how would Anastasia have survived?” in a realistic and serious way. There’s no far-fetched amnesia or girls pretending to be the Dowager’s granddaughter. O’Neil drops us in the middle of the worst moment of Anna’s life and we see it through to its conclusion, but we don’t know what is in store for the characters or the country beyond that.

It was also a nice character study on how two people on opposite sides of a polarizing issue could come to understand and respect each other, but, of course, that is only possible when those in question are willing to use common sense, care about all people’s rights, and are willing to compromise within their personal beliefs to find a better way for everyone. So perhaps this WAS a fantasy after all.

Bonus Factor: Retellings

Maria and Tony from West Side Story singing on a balcony.

I blame the catchy music and a Meg Ryan / John Cusack power duo as the reason so many of us grew up hoping the real-life tragedy of Anastasia Romanova had a happier ending than what came to pass—although, perhaps wishing for a young girl to have survived an assassination attempt and have to live with the fact that she saw her entire family murdered is not exactly a happy ending… We humans do love a messy drama with a side of the macabre, and it’s clear something about this haunting story has continually struck a chord in us.

Bonus Factor: Friendships

Characters from Baby-Sitters' Club show sitting on a bed talking and laughing.

Evgenia and Anna form an intense bond because of their shared experiences. Evgenia’s life has been constantly affected by Anna—first as a peasant living under Tsar Nikolai’s rule and then in many, many ways throughout this novel all thanks to her initial pity for Anna’s sorry state. She could easily hate Anna and often does find her off-putting because of their extreme class differences and upbringings. But the girls find something familiar in each other in spite of their conflicts, and it always gives me the warm fuzzies watching people be the best versions of themselves for someone else.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Politics

Roll of "I voted" stickers with American flag design

Politics, war, huh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing but heartbreak, y’all! The Bolsheviks were some real assholes. Not that Anastasia’s father was any better, keeping the people of his land ignorant and poor, but the Bolsheviks came in and bulldozed the more moderate people who ended the tsar’s reign and, well, we all know about Lenin. Why do the “less evil guys” have to be so incredibly ineffectual all the time? Is there not one controversial topic out there we can get a win on? *climbs off soapbox*

Relationship Status: Running Partners

Guess we should’ve trained better before that marathon, eh, Book? You had me emotionally and physically drained after everything we went through together. I could use a nap, an emotional support animal, and some good chocolate. I hope you get the same!

Literary Matchmaking

Traitor: A Novel of World War II

This story reminded me of another, even more intense historical drama about enemies working together, though set in WWII Poland: Amanda McCrina’s Traitor.

Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1)

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza isn’t necessarily an Anastasia retelling (I don’t think) but a war refugee saving a future queen though they’re on opposites sides of an issue and then going on the run together – it’s kinda like this book, but in space!

Heart of Iron (Heart of Iron #1)

Ashley Poston’s Heart of Iron IS actually supposed to be an Anastasia retelling in space.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Roaring Brook Press. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. Daughters of a Dead Empire is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.