Anastasia's Secret follows the life of the youngest daughter of the last tsar of Russia from ages 12 through 18. When the story begins, Russia is on the cusp of joining what will eventually be known as World War I. While Anastasia lives a sheltered life, she knows she is loved and enjoys the companionship of her older sisters and her little brother. Yet she sometimes craves more, and is thrilled to meet Sasha a young soldier and guard at the palace, and quickly befriends the boy who's only a few years older than she.
But once Russia joins the war, life begins changing quickly. Sasha is sent to the front lines, and when it looks like the war is turning in Germany's favor, the tsar himself takes command of the armies, taking him away from his family. The tsarina and the oldest girls go to work as nurses, leaving Anastasia and the next youngest daughter, Marie, to merely work as assistants in the hospitals.
But once the war ends, all is not peaceful in Russia. The Bolsheviks in the parliament want the tsar out of power, and from the rumors Anastasia hears, they aren't afraid to resort to violence to make it happen.
After the overthrow of the tsar, life is turned upside down for Anastasia and her family. Placed under house arrest, the family is faced with indignity after indignity in the name of the new communist government. Anastasia's only comfort - and protector - is found in Sasha, who survived the war and has returned as a palace guard, though now charged with keeping the family locked inside. As they continue to grow, even under such adverse circumstances, their friendship turns to love.
The historical research for this novel must have been exhausting. The novel is filled with historical details, from the glamorous débutante balls Anastasia's older sisters get to have, to the not-so-glamorous, like how a family of 7 plus a handful of servants live in a small house in Siberia. Lots and lots of details for the history buff to savor here.
The rest of the novel I wasn't quite so enamored with. Anastasia does a lot of growing up over the course of the novel - it spans her entire teenage life. Yet the character's voice never reflects this growing up. On page three hundred she sounds exactly the same as she did on page one. The quick pace and the lack of voice development often made it hard to envision exactly what age Anastasia is (it also doesn't help that everyone in her family continues to treat her like a child, but that's actually important to the character & plot development so it's forgiven and I think would have actually been enhanced if Anastasia acted and sounded appreciably older). This also leads to uncomfortable moments of trying to figure out just how old Anastasia is when she and Sasha start having a physical relationship (don't worry, it's not totally squicky). For those concerned about such things: though Sasha and Anastasia do obviously start having sex and Anastasia does some dwelling on the fact that she's probably lost her virginity long before her sisters ever will, it's never explicit.
As I said at the beginning, this book covers Anastasia's life leading up to the execution. It doesn't, however, actually cover anyone's death, which also means that it doesn't give a definitive answer as to whether Anastasia survived. All signs point to yes, however.
Finally, can I just say that this cover bores me to tears?
For the first time ever I correctly guessed a publisher just by looking at the cover - I remembered Justine Larbalstier mentioning during the Liar cover controversy that Bloomsbury has had good luck with photos of girls on the covers, and sure enough this is a Bloomsbury title. This just seems like such a generic photo - you can't even see enough of the girl to tell if she's in period costume or not. This definitely isn't a book I would have picked up based on just the cover.
This book does have one of the more interesting online components that I've seen thus far. A blog called Anastasia Lives has been set up to supplement the novel. I assume this is Susanne Dunlap's creation, but the blog only identifies its author as Anastasia. Again, this is a must for history buffs as the multi-media aspect of the internet lets us actually see historical photographs - I especially like the current entry that shows a political cartoon from the era! I haven't read every post, but it doesn't look like it's particularly spoiler-y, so it can be enjoyed even if you haven't read Anastasia's Secret yet.