"The Romanov Cross"
By: Robert Masello
Publisher: Bantam
Pages: 495
Price: $26
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Robert Masello stirs a stew of global warming, the Spanish flu and Grand Duchess Anastasia
March 7, 2013

As if we didn't all have enough to worry about, here comes Robert Masello with "The Romanov Cross," in which global warming leads to the return of the Spanish flu of 1918.

It was called the Spanish flu because only Spain was actually talking out loud about the pandemic, which infected maybe 500 million people, worldwide, and killed maybe as many of 100 million of them. There was a war on, and neither side wanted to admit how many of their soldiers were dying.

It is an especially tricky virus, because it works by getting the body's immune system to work against itself. Therefore, in 1918, it was the healthiest, strongest people who were affected the worst. Children and weak, older people had the best chance of beating it.

The Romanov Cross

In Masello's highly entertaining thriller, a graveyard on a desolate Alaskan island starts thawing out, and a coffin tumbles into the sea, where it is found by a fishing-boat captain who is not bright and not honest. He spots something shiny in the coffin, then manages to accidentally destroy his boat and most of his crew.

He saves the pretty cross he found, though, which is encrusted with precious gems.

Meanwhile, in a much warmer corner of the world, an Army epidemiologist, Frank Slater, in a war zone, tries to save the life of a local by calling in a helicopter medivac, in violation of standing orders. He's in big trouble, career-wise, and pushes his career deeper into the latrine when he punches out his commanding officer for making a mean joke when the person Slater had tried to save dies.

At his court martial, as he is contemplating spending the next few years in a military prison, he gets an offer to avoid jail if he will go to Alaska and investigate the thawing graveyard.

The problem is, everybody in the graveyard died from the Spanish flu. They were buried in holes that had been made by blasting the permafrost with TNT. There is a chance that the deadly virus was, in effect, flash frozen in the bodies, and is still viable.

Slater goes to Alaska, where things go very, very bad.

Masello also has a very interesting tale to tell about that fancy cross, and how it got to the little Alaskan island. It involves Rasputin and Anastasia, the young Romanov some people thought might have survived the Russian revolution.

Masello dips into some known history about the grand duchess, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. The entire family was snatched by the Bolshevik secret police in 1918, and all were killed.

For decades, people thought maybe Anastasia survived, because her body and that of her brother Alexei were not found with the rest of the family in the mass grave. But, in 2007, some remains were found near the larger grave, and DNA testing showed that the entire Romanov family was accounted for, including Anastasia.

Masello ignores that bit of history, for the sake of telling his story. In "The Romanov Cross," Anastasia travels with her family to what will be their killing spot, but she is saved by the jewels her mother had sewn into her corset, making it something like a bullet-proof vest. A young guard drags her out of the bloody pile of bodies and helps her cross Siberia and fly to the Alaskan island where followers of her family friend Rasputin have established a colony.

But she has brought with her the flu virus.

The Romanov cross of the title was a gift of Rasputin to Anastasia, and how it got in that coffin and what becomes of it in modern times is Masello's neat trick of plotting.

The dumb and crooked fishing boat captain is sent back to the island by his creepy brother, a paraplegic internet preacher, to see if he can find more jewels in the graveyard. He doesn't know about the flu, and does all he can to avoid Slater and all the government people who are landing in helicopters.

Also, he and his also-stupid cohorts must try to avoid the spooky black wolves on the island, and the even spookier old woman with the lantern.

For Slater, who is trying to save the entire world, having these criminal morons running around stealing things, in the middle of a blizzard, makes for a very bad time.

If all that seems convoluted, it is nothing compared to the book itself, which includes all kinds of other twists and turns, including the Inuit tribal elder who becomes Slater's love interest, and the two weird sisters who live with the paraplegic preacher.

It's a good read. Masello, who is also a TV guy, knows how to entertain an audience. He does so with this book.


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