Published by Everything With Words, 2019.
I absolutely loved The Tzar’s Curious Runaways. It’s set in Russia in the early 1700s and gives a fascinating insight into life at court at the time of Peter the Great. I am not at all familiar with Russian history and I really enjoyed how vividly Robin Scott-Elliot evokes this era. The story takes place across a vast panorama encompassing St Petersburg, the Russian steppe and the Ural Mountains. So detailed are the descriptions, that the landscape truly comes alive.
The protagonists are Katinka (Kat), a brilliant ballerina with a hunched back; Alexei the giant; and Nikolai the dwarf. These children are all part of the Tzar’s Kunstkamera, his circus of curiosities. They have been brought to court to entertain the Tzar and his courtiers and are often ridiculed or mistreated. When the Tzar dies, the Kunstkamera no longer has his protection and the three children realise they must flee if they are to survive.
Then begins an epic adventure across the Russian steppe. It’s a treacherous journey beset with problems: fierce wolves in the forest, fire, betrayal, capture and imprisonment. Not to mention severe hunger and the fast-approaching deadly Russian winter. The children’s lives are threatened at every turn and, on more than one occasion, they are forced to run for their lives.
The themes of friendship and loyalty are strong. Most of the adults who Kat, Alexei and Nikolai encounter are either greedy, selfish or cruel; they can trust no-one. Instead, they must rely on each other. The children are a team. They are brave, resourceful and determined. Such is their instinct for survival that they keep going, in spite of everything that is thrown at them.
There’s also a very important message about acceptance and inclusion; each of the three children are marked out as different in some way, and each is accepted by the other and not defined by their differences. I also thought that it was significant and empowering how none of the children were held back by their physical differences. Again and again, they take on and accomplish the toughest of challenges.
A further enjoyable aspect to the book is the undercurrent of magic. One of the few trustworthy adults in the book is Johann Daniel, the Tzar’s librarian. During Kat’s time at court, he acted as a protective and nurturing father figure towards her. When the children flee from the Winter’s Palace in St Petersburg, he provides them with a map of Russia. Its markings seem to change as if the map is magically guiding the children and alerting them to dangers.
The Tzar’s Curious Runaways is a gripping and suspenseful story. It’s an exciting, edge-of-your-seat read with lots of tension. It’s also a celebration of friendship and a powerful example of inclusion and acceptance.
Suitable for children aged 8+
Thank you to Everything With Words for sending me this book to review.