Friday, May 19, 2023

"Entertaining and thought-provoking": NIKOLAI'S QUEST review

NIKOLAI'S QUEST by Diane Robinson (Rose & Fern Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by Jacqui Lynne

Russia 1996. 11-year-old Nikolai and his 9-year-old sister, Anna, have lived most of their lives in an orphanage, built inside a 300-year-old former monastery. Their city has changed its name from Leningrad back to St. Petersburg. The teachers and other staff at the orphanage are always grumbling about ‘too much change.’ Some children are being adopted by people from New Zealand. Adoption seems like a good escape. Then, just when Nikolai and Anna are on the brink of being chosen, a stranger tells Anna that she looks like her mother, but then disappears. Could it be that their birth parents are not really dead after all? Mysterious incidents and a secret tunnel. Nikolai and Anna can’t solve the puzzle alone, but who can they really trust to help them?

The subheading of this YA  book, a search for answers and belonging, sums up the storyline very well. Nikolai and Anna are brother and sister in an orphanage in St Petersburg. Or, are they truly orphans? Who is the man they see outside the gates watching them – could he be their father, or is he really dead as they’ve been told? That’s one of the answers they want to know.

Their search for the truth involves a map, secret tunnels and political intrigue. Working around the system, they use methods of information gathering that readers of the target age will identify with. I liked the fact that senior students at the orphanage work with the pair to bring about the conclusion. While all the children hope to find relatives or to be taken into new families, any threat is from outside the walls. Within the institution there is a sense of belonging – a family for children without one. 

The novel is realistic, helped by front papers showing a map of the orphanage’s layout and copies of birth certificates for both children. The New Zealand link to the story is that Nikolai and Anna are to be adopted by a Kiwi couple and brought here to live.

Along with the entertaining and thought-provoking story there’s an opportunity to learn a little about Russian history of the last century. The cover, book design, and readable writing are all good and suitable for YA readers. A slight disappointment is that, despite a note that the book is written in UK English, US convention is used in the case of honorifics.

Recommended as a very good read for ages 10 to 16, or beyond.

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Flaxflower founder and editor Bronwyn Elsmore. 

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