Book review: To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams

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Authentic, moving, though-provoking, gripping ... Andrew Williams’ sophisticated novel set in St Petersburg 37 years before the revolution that overturned Russia is about as good as historical thrillers get.

To Kill a Tsar recreates with stunning and nail-biting accuracy the dangerous cat-and-mouse game played out between ruthless revolutionaries and the brutal, autocratic government of old imperial Russia in the early 1880s.

At its heart is the romance between Frederick Hadfield, a likeable young doctor from a well-connected and respected Anglo-Russian family, who falls for the charms of Anna Kovalenko, a Ukrainian teacher who is a committed member of The People’s Will, a small but single-minded group of revolutionaries.

Williams mixes fact and fiction with seamless ease to recreate a world of striking contrasts in which rich and poor, passion and principle, reason and blind idealism, love and duty collide in spectacular and dramatic fashion.

Treachery, morality, power, corruption and politics all come under close scrutiny in Williams’ highly accomplished story which asks that age-old question ... can violence ever be justified, whatever the ultimate goal?

In Palace Square, St Petersburg, in 1879 a shot rings out and narrowly misses Tsar Alexander II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. As Cossack guards tackle the young male assassin to the ground, no one notices a beautiful young woman slip away.

Russia is alive with the stirrings of revolution. The country is deeply divided and a group of determined terrorists, some from the highest echelons of society, is desperately trying to overthrow an increasingly tyrannical regime.

Motivated by excitement, hope and ambition, the revolutionaries are waging a life-and-death undercover battle.

While Tsar Alexander II remains a virtual prisoner in his own palaces, his ruthless secret police will stop at nothing to unmask the conspirators who plot his assassination and the overthrow of the imperial regime.

For Dr Frederick Hadfield, whose medical practice dependent on the patronage of the St Petersburg nobility, these are dangerous times.

When he meets the passionate idealist Anna Kovalenko, he becomes drawn into a game of undercover assignations, plot and counterplot and risks the censure of both sides of the divide in a perilous double life.

From glittering ballrooms to the cruel cells of the House of Preliminary Detention, from the grandeur of the British Embassy to the underground presses of the young revolutionaries, To Kill a Tsar is both a tale of two star-crossed lovers and a convincing portrayal of real people and real events.

Chilling, exciting and full of suspense, Williams treats the arguments of imperialists and revolutionaries with scrupulous fairness and respect whilst delivering an unputdownable conspiracy novel.

Don’t miss it...

(John Murray, paperback, £7.99)