The later part of 2018 was a good time for books about time travel (or possibly I was just looking for time travel books and happened to get lucky). We had Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates, and Time and Time Again: Sixteen Trips in Time by Robert Silverberg, and Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas, which I’m going to review here.
But first, I want to nominate this book for the worst title of 2018. Is it easy to remember? Not in the least; I had to look it up myself to check it out. Is it a clever, pun-like title, or a play on some well-known phrase? Not at all. Is it a title that gives you an idea of the book’s genre? Nope; between the title and the cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking this might be some kind of historical novel, possibly a romance (and yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but obviously we all do, to some extent). Does the title reflect what the book is about? Not really. Yes, the main character had been a prefect for Miss Blaine, and there is a golden samovar in the story which does play a minor role, but it’s not the focus of the book in any way (I kept hoping, as I read on, that the samovar would play a more prominent part, but it doesn’t). The worst part about the title, though, is that it doesn’t invite a reader to check the book out, and that’s a shame, because the book is a hoot.
Our protagonist, Shona McMonagle, is a Scottish graduate of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a fact of which she is very proud, and a connection which leads directly to her time traveling adventure. She is, in the present world, a librarian (another reason to like her), and she has a particular loathing for the book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for its slanderous portrayal of her alma mater, to the point where she deliberately tries to keep the book out of the hands of unsuspecting readers (and I will admit here that I had a sneaking admiration for her efforts in that regard; there are books I’ve felt the same way about, though I haven’t gone as far as Shona). When the founder of the school finds Shona at the library and offers her the opportunity to travel back in time for a week to complete a mission, Shona is the kind of woman who jumps at the opportunity, even though she doesn’t know exactly what the mission is (and for most of the book, she’s in the dark about the nature of her mission, and even about exactly when she finds herself).
She goes back to Tsarist Russia, and finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving the strange deaths of certain widows, which she assumes is part of her mission. She’s provided with a house, money, and a serf, “Old Vatrushkin,” who acts as her coachman and in various other capacities as he’s needed.
If you are a fan of Elizabeth Peters, you are going to enjoy Shona. She has the Amanda Peabody certainty of her rightness, and the indomitable spirit, with a modern feminism and egalitarianism thrown in. If you are a fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next (and if you haven’t read that series, starting with The Eyre Affair, you don’t know what you’re missing), you’ll also like Shona’s roll-up-your-sleeves-and-deal-with-the-weirdness attitude, which is like Thursday’s. Shona has all kinds of modern knowledge and skills, but the humor in the story (and there’s a lot of humor in it) lies in the fact that Shona isn’t as smart as she thinks she is. You, the reader, will be a couple of steps ahead of her, shaking your head at her assumptions, as bodies pile up and attempts are made on her life as she tries to accomplish what she thinks is her mission (she’s wrong about that, too), but that’s part of the fun.
Don’t bother trying to figure out how historically accurate Tsarist Russia is here. Just sit back and enjoy the wild ride, the amusing characters, from Shona herself to the multitalented “Old Vatrushkin” (who’s actually only 29, so hardly old; he reminds me of Mel Brooks’ character in The Twelve Chairs, in fact), to the evil duchess and the intriguingly gorgeous Sasha and the innocent Lidia and her nanny, and the many almost farcical incidents of the plot (an early scene in which Shona wows a bunch of decadent Russian aristocrats by teaching them Scottish dances is one of my favorites, and it leads to other plot developments later).
There’s a hint at the end of the book that we haven’t seen the last of Shona and her time travels, and I, for one, am looking forward to her future adventures, though I certainly hope whoever names the next book will do a better job and make it more likely that she will have the readership she deserves.