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#Book Review #Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten @St.Martin’s Press


St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty and left the empire without an heir. Russia risks falling into chaos. Into the void steps the woman who has been by his side for decades: his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, as ambitious, ruthless and passionate as Peter himself.

Born into devastating poverty, Catherine used her extraordinary beauty and shrewd intelligence to ingratiate herself with Peter’s powerful generals, finally seducing the Tsar himself. But even amongst the splendor and opulence of her new life—the lavish feasts, glittering jewels, and candle-lit hours in Peter’s bedchamber—she knows the peril of her position. Peter’s attentions are fickle and his rages powerful; his first wife is condemned to a prison cell, her lover impaled alive in Red Square. And now Catherine faces the ultimate test: can she keep the Tsar’s death a secret as she plays a lethal game to destroy her enemies and take the Crown for herself?

From the sensuous pleasures of a decadent aristocracy, to the incense-filled rites of the Orthodox Church and the terror of Peter’s torture chambers, the intoxicating and dangerous world of Imperial Russia is brought to vivid life. Tsarina is the story of one remarkable woman whose bid for power would transform the Russian Empire.”

Growing up, I heard stories about Peter the Great, his epic efforts to reform Russia and turn it into the global player it became during and after his reign, his formidable spirit and thirst for knowledge, as well as his volatile character. However, few people know much about his wife Catherine who came from humble origins and made her way to the most elevated position of the Empress of Russia. Although she passed away just two years after her husband’s death, Catherine I was, without any doubt, a remarkable woman.

I often wondered what it was like to be a life companion of somebody like Henry VIII or Peter the Great. Historically, royal marriages seal geopolitical alliances. Rarely do they have anything to do with romantic feelings or personal happiness. So what kind of ambition or political intelligence does it take to play this game? or perhaps this story is an exception and it is possible to love and care for the real, necessarily flawed person behind the titles and almost limitless power? This is the question Ellen Alpsten sets out to answer in her historical novel Tsarina and I must say I was riveted by the book from the beginning to the end.

Tsarina begins with a bang. Peter the Great has just passed away and Tsarina Catherine knows she cannot permit herself a moment of weakness or grief: her survival depends on outsmarting other possible heirs and political forces. We do get a glimpse of how mixed her feelings are and then we go back to the beginning of her life (when she still went by name of Marta) to see what she has been through up until this moment. Extreme poverty, serfdom, rape (warning: graphic scenes), powerlessness, hard work, wars and men’s power games, pregnancies, child births and child loss, love, lust, scandals and intrigues- all until Catherine’s death in 1727. The narrative is extremely detailed and obviously very well-researched. You will live and breath history and find yourself immersed in this dangerous period of time. Chapter after chapter, I felt compelled to read on and discover more details of Catherine’s dramatic life. In her afterword, the author says that the historical period Tsarina is set in is well-documented (although little is known of Marta /Catherine’s life before she became Pastor Gluck’s housemaid, so here we definitely have some artistic licence). However, it does take a lot of skill to turn dry historical accounts into such a vivid story.

Recommended to all lovers of historical fiction who would like to learn more about life in Russia at the beginning of the 18th century.

Thank you to NetGalley and St.Martin’s Press for the ARC provided in exchange for an honest opinion.

20 replies on “#Book Review #Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten @St.Martin’s Press”

  1. Ever since I read (and enjoyed) A Gentleman in Moscow, I’ve been meaning to read more literature with a Russian setting. This sounds like a great piece of historical fiction and it’s good to hear, it comes across as being well-researched. Wonderful review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Debjani! I’m now inspired to read more, perhaps something about Peter’s older sister Sophia who was his regent as he was just three when his father died. There’s so much to explore! I still love my Tudors, though😁❤
      Do you have a favourite historical period to read about?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review. I have not read much historical fiction about Russia except for things involving the wars. Definitely nothing from this far back in history. I am going to add it to my TBR because it sounds well researched and about a period I am not familiar with, but not sure when I will be able to get to it. You have definitely interested me with this one Toni.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carla! I was totally immersed in this book and surprised by many things the author described so vividly.This is not a new release, but I never heard of this book up to now. Hope you like it, Carla!

      Liked by 1 person

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