The Romanov Cross by Robert Masello

Publisher: Bantam
Pages: 495
Year: 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Romanov Cross by Robert MaselloReview
Global warming is possibly even more dangerous than we thought. With the seas warming and the ice melting, the frost-sealed cemeteries of the old Inuit settlements of the Arctic are under threat. When a storm blows a coffin into the nets of a crab boat off the coast of St Peter’s Island, Captain Harley Vane pries it open and exposes more than just an exquisite jewelled cross around the neck of the well-preserved corpse of a young man. Within minutes the boat is at the bottom of the sea. Harley alone survives but when he returns to the Alaska mainland he is determined to return to the island, certain that there will be more riches buried with the dead. For now, he ignores his nightmare memories from the island, of wolves running and lanterns on the shore.

Meanwhile, army epidemiologist Frank Slater is facing his own troubles. Court martialed for putting the life of a local child above military bureaucracy, he is offered an escape from disgrace – the investigation of recently revealed remains on St Peter’s Island. These bodies are all that remains of a settlement wiped out by the Spanish Flu of 1918. It is not known how well the virus will survive in a frozen host. It may be dead but with bodies exposed by storms and rising temperatures, nobody wants to take the chance of waking up the deadliest plague ever to afflict mankind.

The Romanov Cross is a thriller to make you stay up at night. It twists together several strings of story, at the heart of which is this desolate and bleak island in the Bering Straits. This is still a frontier land. Life is still rough here. Vane and his ‘born again’ brother survive as well as they can by stealing, lying, even searching for divine salvation, whereas Slater’s new ally, local mayor Nika Tincook refuses to give up on the people here, wanting them to relearn a sense of their Inuit past and work together for a future. Not surprisingly, Nina has a sense of adventure and courage that more than matches that of Slater.

The action of the novel moves between the Alaskan coastal town of Port Olav and the island of St Peter’s, much of it exposed to the harshest elements, not all of them explicable. But there is more to the story than that. In parallel with it is the story of St Peter’s settlers and their links to one of the most famous figures of Tsarist Russia – the Mad Monk, or Rasputin. The story travels through the decades, to and from the last weeks and days of the Tsar and his family during World War I. The Tsar had young children. The horror of what happened to them is brought home here and the poignancy of that, plus the awfulness of the devastation of the Spanish Flu, complements so well the action of the thriller and gives the book some heart.

Slater and Nika are both characters I wanted to know more about whereas the Vane brothers, and their appalling hangers on, were enjoyably unpleasant. I liked the way that the Romanov stories intertwined with the current action and I was moved by their stories, which were all the more emotional because history tells us how it ended.

There is a supernatural element in The Romanov Cross but far from seeming preposterous or out of place it is in keeping with the desolation and chill of St Peter’s Island and doesn’t seem too far removed from the old Inuit beliefs which are just holding on and emerge now and again through the novel. There is a touch of melodrama towards the end but, on the whole, I thought the story was well done and well-written. I did not want to put it down and during the last half I didn’t.

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