Countess Alexandreya Romanova is rushing from her provincial home in Bratz to St. Petersburg to help her sister Natasha. On the road, her carriage is nearly driven into a snowbank by a regiment of Cossacks, the personal guard of Grand Duchess Catherine. Soon after, at a roadside inn, she meets their enigmatic leader, Dmitri Varanov, who gives her his own room in the overbooked hostel. Although initially open-minded towards the peasant-born soldier, Varanov’s hostility towards aristocratic women, his vulger assumptions about her morality, and his violent attempt to seduce her turn Alexandreya against him. Unfortunately, Varanov’s position at court means that he is impossible to avoid.
Meanwhile, the heroine’s brother-in-law Major Krylenko’s rank as the head of the insane heir-apparent Peter’s soldiers, his alcoholism and spousal abuse, and Natasha’s love affairs cast the heroine into an ever-more-intense political intrigue. It seems that everyone is playing a deep game in the shadow of the impending political battle between Peter and Catherine for the Russian throne. As Alexandreya attempts to engineer an escape for her battered sister, she is drawn nearer to the dangerous Dmitri.
I do not like The Countess. Even with the back-story of a humiliating relationship with an aristocratic lady, Dmitri’s hatred of women is unsettling. His predatory behavior towards Alexandreya, his conviction that her “frigid” exterior is merely a mask that he intends to strip away, and his almost unrelenting prejudice makes him repellent as a hero. In fact, both Dmitri and Major Krylenko (the apparent villain) share the opinion that women must be broken. I can muster no sympathy for such characters.
Fortunately, Alexandreya is more appealing. She is willing to take action to rescue Natasha and her lover from the intolerable Krylenko. She puts herself at risk for her sister’s well-being. She is open-minded and fair, but her fairness is wasted on Dmitri, who backslides to misogyny every time he seems to have grown a little.
The Countess offends me in other ways, as well. Although I do not specialize in this period of Russian history, I do know a thing or two about the language. Author Valentina Luellen obviously does not. First of all, the name “Alexandreya” is not a Russian name. The correct female varient of “Alexander” is “Alexandra.” Nor is the nickname for Alexandra “Alexa.” Natasha is nicknamed “Tasha,” even though “Natasha” is already a diminutive of the name “Natalia.” There are rules for how nicknames are derived in Russian which Luellen did not bother to find out. She also has Dmitri repeatedly call Alexandreya “mála koska,” the first word of which isn’t even Russian, and the second of which is misspelled. The correct form would be malen’kaya koshka (“little cat”).
I also know something about horses. Dmitri, an avid breeder and equestrian, brags about his stable of “thoroughbreds” (the breed of horses that typically run in the Triple Crown and are used for hunter-jumpers today). He shows Alexandreya his stable full of “proud, stalwart stallions [Anne notes: so many stallions would be extremely agitated to be housed together with mares nearby], mostly of Arabian stock” (60). Then it gets worse:
“I have never seen the like of them,” she confessed. “Are they all thoroughbreds?”
This whole passage left me speechless. Obviously the author thinks “thoroughbreds” and “purebreds” are the same thing. They are not. Thoroughbreds were created by cross-breeding native English mares with Arabian stallions in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Plus, it is highly unlikely that Arabians–which are from desert regions–would be the choice for a Russian soldier to ride for hundreds of miles during a Russian winter (after all, when I lived in Moscow the temperature dropped as low as -19 degrees Celsius).
All I can say is this: Ms. Luellen, if you are going to write a period romance, do your research. Your readers likely pick up a book because it treats an era or a region they already love and study. They will know when you make huge blunders.
Ok. Deep breath.
Now, back to the story. The last thing that I want to note is the extreme violence of The Countess. Not only do we hear about Krylenko’s physical abuse of Natasha, we witness her being beaten so badly that she is confined to bed for some time. There is an implied rape, which, although not explicitly described, is indicated by an overheard scream and the author’s statement that the sexual encounter is a “humiliation” Natasha is “forced to endure.” Finally, as mentioned above, the supposed hero of the story is not much better than its villain, though thankfully he doesn’t actually rape anyone over the course of the novel. He just comes close to forcing himself on the heroine after handing her maid over to one of his soldiers as a non-consenting, sexual plaything.
In short, The Countess is not a romance. It is a simply a horror. I cannot recommend it to anyone.