I received this book for free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Girl Who Fought Napoleon: A Novel of the Russian Empire by Linda Lafferty
Published: September 20th 2016 by Lake Union Publishing
Genres: Historical Fiction
Source: TLC Book Tours
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The Girl Who Fought Napoleon is a historical fiction novel by Linda Lafferty about a Russian girl named Nadya who cross-dresses in order to join the army and fight in the Napoleonic war. Nadya’s story is interspersed with point-of-view segments from Tsar Alexander as he struggles with balancing his Enlightenment ideals with the harsher reality that accompanies war and politics.
I was a Russian major in undergrad, and so the idea of this book appealed to me in many ways. Most of what I know about Russian history is focused on the 1861+ years, after the Emancipation of the Serfs, and so it was interesting to read about Tsar Alexander, who ruled shortly after Catherine the Great. His grandmother had given him a liberal education, which included Enlightenment concepts like freedom and democracy. He had so much hope for his rule to be different, but it began prematurely and the circumstances of his father’s death cast a shadow he struggled to be rid of. By the end of the novel, his circumstances have shaped him into an entirely different personality.
I hadn’t heard of Nadya before, but her story is fascinating. Her father was in the military, and she was born on the road. She had a hard time fitting into the gender roles expected of women of her era, and at a young age, she ran away with her horse and joined the cavalry. I really enjoyed Lafferty’s portrayal of Nadya’s journey, because she didn’t start out a competent soldier, even though her career eventually led to her becoming an officer. She started out exactly as you’d expect someone who ran away from home to join the army with very little training and no experience would. It was a constant struggle, and she made plenty of mistakes. But news of her courage eventually reached Tsar Alexander, and rather than forcing her to return to her father, he gave her a promotion and allowed her to continue her career.
There’s one part of The Girl Who Fought Napoleon that didn’t sit quite so well with me. To understand why, you have to understand that the book was based on Nadya’s memoir. And because of the limitations of her memoir (and her decision to omit certain parts of her life from it), the ending was very unclear, and at times contradictory. I found myself flipping back to earlier in the novel where I remembered reading something very different, and I kept thinking that I was losing my mind. It turns out that I wasn’t, and that it was a deliberate choice, and it was explained in the Epilogue, but it broke the cohesion of the narrative and was somewhat jarring to read. It would have been a lot better if the twist were evident in the prologue, or at least further hinted at, so that readers do not doubt their own sanity when they get to the end of the book.
Aside from that, The Girl Who Fought Napoleon was a lovely glimpse into the lives of two historical figures who struggled to balance their visions of themselves with the expectations of society. Nadya and Alexander did their best with the hands that fate dealt them, and each lived in bold defiance of tradition. If you’re interested in Russian history, you’ll enjoy this novel.