The Story: The Crown and the Crucible, the first novel in the historical fiction Russians series by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella, relates the intersecting narratives of Anna Burenin, daughter of humble peasants, and Katrina Fedorcenko, a spoiled and pampered princess. When Anna’s family hits hard economic times, she leaves her village for the city of St. Petersburg where she works for the nobility. There, she sees the glittering lights and dashing lifestyles of Russia’s upper crust but nothing can hide the political and spiritual fragility hidden beneath. In time, Anna discovers that her greater purpose in coming might be to serve as an example of grace and humility to even the most stubborn of souls.
My Take: I first read this novel as a teenager when my reading interests had passed the usual books girls my age at the time were into. I wanted something lengthy, but not too long, and something interesting; so I picked up this novel. It became one of my most-read books then, and I still enjoy it many years later.
The plot structure is fairly basic but holds its own and is paced nicely: Anna Burenin is the teenage daughter of Russian peasants, but when her family suffers hard times, Anna is granted employment in St. Petersburg in the home of Prince Viktor Fedorcenko. Initially, Anna is sent to work in the kitchens, but through rather fortunate circumstances, she becomes the personal maid to Viktor’s young teenage daughter, Katrina. Thus, the primary plot focuses on Anna and Katrina’s various interactions with each other as well as with members of the Russian aristocracy. But it’s these moments that make the story interesting, especially from Anna’s point of view as this way of life is utterly foreign to her. Yet Katrina isn’t left out: she might not be new to the whole aristocracy scene but she’s still a novice when it comes to matters of life and love. There are a few sub-plots involving Katrina and Anna’s respective brothers and a villainous count; and while these add tension and help develop members of the secondary cast, I found them to be slightly less interesting than the principle plot.
While I’m usually not a fan of Christian fiction because most of it seems to be cleverly-disguised sermons or showcase Christian characters as holier-than-thou figures, The Crown and the Crucible avoids these pitfalls as it’s clean historical fiction that has a strong, non-hypocritical Christian female protagonist. Rather than use Anna to preach to readers, the writers allow her faith to be a part of who she is as a person so it never seems contrived or forced. Anna also isn’t a goody-two-shoes; instead, she’s a genuine, caring young woman who seeks God’s wisdom for her life and treats others in a Christ-like manner. She’s not perfect but she’s not a hypocrite, so she’s instantly likable and easy to cheer for.
That makes her the perfect doppelganger for Katrina, who starts out as a spoiled brat. Despite that, I actually didn’t find her unlikable as Katrina does have moments of maturity alongside her very immature notions at times. However, she’s not so immature that you find yourself aggravated by her decisions; if anything, her occasional outbursts and poor choices add to her character’s depth so you want her to learn from her mistakes. But Anna’s levelheadedness helps balance Katrina out, especially in the book’s first half. Overall, both characters have a coming-of-age that fits with their development and backstories but, thankfully, the lessons of adulthood are never spoon-fed.
It’s also worth mentioning that this novel contains some romance but it’s handled deftly and smartly. Anna is paired up with a man who is her equal in common sense, faith, manners, and book smarts but not in social standing; while Katrina struggles to catch the eye of a man who snags her fancy. Mercifully, there is no “insta-love” and it probably helps that this is part of a series where the romance can blossom over time. For this first book, I appreciated its fine hand so the romantic elements come across as realistically gentle and genuine for one character and an organic lesson in the proverbial school of hard knocks for another.
World-building-wise, since this is a historical novel, settings, modes of dress, and manners have to fit with the time period. Based on my general (but admittedly limited) knowledge of Russian history and culture, they seem fairly accurate and respectful. The characters don’t talk or act like they belong in a modern-day novel; the class system is solidly in place; and the description of places and dress seems true to period and detailed enough to help you envision a scene or person but not to the point of being overwhelmed.
Speaking of history, this novel starts with a few mini-chapters to set the stage. They are separate from the characters in the novel, so you can read them first, later, or not at all. I tend to skip them so I can dive straight into the novel; but if you’d like a little more background into the world these characters live in, then you might enjoy perusing them.
Language – None.
Violence – Essentially none, though the latter portions of the novel focus on a few war scenes and the plight of Russian soldiers, so general descriptions of combat and injuries are made but avoid gory, graphic details. Elsewhere, Olga, an iron-fisted overseer of the palace kitchens, is known to inflict physical punishment on her underlings. Though such acts are only discussed and never shown, one servant returns to the kitchens with a bruised face as the aftermath of a punishment for being negligent.
Sexual Content -None. There are hints of a sweet romance between two characters but there is no insta-love and nothing sexual ever transpires. Likewise, it’s no secret that Katrina has her eyes set on her brother’s friend, but while she tries to dress and act in ways to catch his attention, she isn’t brazenly sexual; and other than a quick kiss, nothing even remotely sexual occurs between them as well.
Overall, The Crown and the Crucible is an enjoyable novel that does a great job establishing its female leads as polar opposites only to bring them closer together. Likewise, the Christian focus is delivered realistically through character actions rather than long-winded speeches or over-dramatic conversion scenes. If you’re in the market for engaging historical fiction that features strong female characters and realistic romance devoid of bodice-ripping, then this is certainly a worthwhile pick.