I love an epic historical fiction novel focused on a real historical figure, and while Russian history has never been my area of interest, after watching The Great I wanted more. I dove at the chance to read and review Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten, an epic tale about the life of Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great. I knew nothing about her before reading this book and am blown away by her eventful life.
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“Makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme.” —Daisy Goodwin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter
“[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman’s colourful life and times.” —Count Nikolai Tolstoy, historian and author
Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten’s rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.
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.
Buy Tsarina here.
Wow, what a book! I have a hangover from this one. Catherine I was born a serf named Marta. She lived quite an interesting life, and from reading her Wikipedia article, the author sticks to the truth, or at least what we know of her. I loved that this book followed Marta’s adolescence, including family life, a brutal master, finding a second family and falling in love, marrying a man she did not love, and escaping a pillaged city to be thrust into the court of Peter the Great, first as his mistress and then his wife.
Life during these times was so brutal and the description above (by Daisy Goodwin, another historical fiction “real person” author whom I love) is accurate. There were times I felt nauseous reading the gruesome descriptions of torture condoned or even performed by Peter the Great, and I am not remotely squeamish or afraid of gore! And while I did not always like Marta, I admired her so much. She was brave and calculating and truly succeeded and thrived in a world that was completely set against her from her birth.
This was an absolutely epic read and as I said earlier, I feel HUNGOVER. I’m dizzy in the aftermath of this book. The end of the book poses the question, could one love someone as awful as Peter the Great as a man? I was so engrossed in Catherine’s story that I feel her fear, bravery, disgust, love, and passion all wrapped up in one. Tsarina left me wanting to learn more about Russian history, but to get through some of the more terrible tales, I think I will need a few shots of vodka next to me much like the historical characters from this book. What an amazing 5 star read, and I must thank St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for giving me a copy in exchange for my honest review.
Goodreads: You just finished your book. What’s next?
Me with a book hangover: pic.twitter.com/uZIEkePGMo
— winebrarian (@bitchbookshelf) November 16, 2020
Find out more about how I rate books here.
Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What an epic tale about a historical figure I knew nothing about. I was totally engrossed. My thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for giving me a copy in exchange for my honest review.
Book Club Questions
- The epilogue poses some interesting questions, including: “Can one love such a despot? No. But a man, who also happens to be the tsar? The tsarina had made her choice.” Do you believe Catherine and Peter loved one another?
- The epilogue also says: “A tsarina does not die as a woman, but as a ruler, even if she was always much more a woman than a ruler.” What does this quote mean?
- What did you know about Catherine I or Peter the Great before this novel? Will you seek more information on this period of history?
ELLEN ALPSTEN was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands. Upon graduating from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, she worked as a news anchor for Bloomberg TV London. Whilst working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work and a nap. Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons and a moody fox red Labrador. Tsarina is her debut novel.
In the Winter Palace, 1725
He is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty tsar of all the Russias, has died—and just in time.
Moments before death came for him, Peter called for a quill and paper to be brought to him in his bedchamber in the Winter Palace. My heart almost stalled. He had not forgotten, but was going to drag me down with him. When he lost consciousness for the last time and the darkness drew him closer to its heart, the quill slipped from his fingers. Black ink spattered the soiled sheets; time held its breath. What had the tsar wanted to settle with that last effort of his tremendous spirit?
I knew the answer.
The candles in the tall candelabra filled the room with a heavy scent and an unsteady light; their glow made shadows reel in corners and brought the woven figurines on the Flemish tapestries to life, their coarse faces showing pain and disbelief. Outside the door, the voices of the people who’d stood there all night were drowned out by the February wind rattling furiously at the shutters. Time spread slowly, like oil on water. Peter had pressed himself into our souls like his signet ring in hot wax. It seemed impossible that the world hadn’t careened to a halt at his passing. My husband, the greatest will ever to impose itself on Russia, had been more than our ruler. He had been our fate. He was still mine.
The doctors—Blumentrost, Paulsen, and Horn—stood silently around Peter’s bed, staring at him, browbeaten. Five kopecks’ worth of medicine, given early enough, could have saved him. Thank God for the quacks’ lack of good sense.
Without looking, I could feel Feofan Prokopovich, the archbishop of Novgorod, watching me, along with Alexander Menshikov. Prokopovich had made the tsar’s will eternal and Peter had much to thank him for. Menshikov, on the other hand, owed his fortune and influence to Peter. What was it Peter had said when someone tried to blacken Alexander Danilovich’s name to him by referring to his murky business dealings? “Menshikov is always Menshikov, in all that he does!” That had put an end to that.
Dr. Paulsen had closed the tsar’s eyes and crossed his hands on his breast, but he hadn’t removed the scroll, Peter’s last will and testament, from his grasp. Those hands, which were always too dainty for the tall, powerful body, had grown still, helpless. Just two weeks earlier he had plunged those very hands into my hair, winding it round his fingers, inhaling the scent of rosewater and sandalwood.
“My Catherine,” he’d said, calling me by the name he himself had given me, and he’d smiled at me. “You’re still a beauty. But what will you look like in a convent, shorn, and bald? The cold there will break you, your spirit, even though you’re strong as a horse. Do you know that Evdokia still writes to me begging for a second fur, poor thing! What a good job you can’t write!” he’d said, laughing.
It had been thirty years since Evdokia had been banished to the convent. I’d met her once. Her eyes shone with madness, her shaven head was covered in boils and scabs from the cold and the filth, and her only company was a hunchbacked dwarf to serve her in her cell. Peter had ordered the poor creature have her tongue cut out, so in response to Evdokia’s moaning and laments, all she was able to do was burble. He’d been right to believe that seeing Evdokia would fill me with lifelong dread.
I knelt at Peter’s bedside and the three doctors retreated to the twilight at the edge of the room, like crows driven from a field: the birds Peter had been so terrified of in the last years of his life. The tsar had called open season on the hapless birds all over his empire. Farmers caught, killed, plucked, and roasted them for reward. None of this helped Peter: silently, at night, the bird would slip through the padded walls and locked doors of his bedchamber. Its ebony wings blotted the light and in their cool shadow, the blood on the tsar’s hands never dried. His fingers were not yet those of a corpse, but soft, and still warm. For a moment, the fear and anger of these past few months slipped from my heart like a thief in the night. I kissed his hands and breathed in his familiar scent of tobacco, ink, leather, and the perfume tincture that was blended for his sole use in Grasse.
I took the scroll from his hand—it was easy enough to slide it out, although my blood thickened with fear and my veins were coated with frost and rime like branches in our Baltic winter. It was important to show everyone that I alone was entitled to do this—I, his wife, and the mother of his children. Twelve times I had given birth.
The paper rustled as I unrolled it. Not for the first time, I was ashamed of my inability to read, and I handed his last will to Feofan Prokopovich. At least Menshikov was as ignorant as I. Ever since the days when Peter first drew us into his orbit and cast his spell upon us, we had been like two children squabbling over their father’s love and attention. Batjushka tsar, his people called him. Our little father tsar.
Prokopovich must have known what Peter had in mind for me. He was an old fox with a sharp wit, as comfortable in heavenly and earthly realms. Daria had once sworn that he had three thousand books in his library. What, if you please, can one man do with three thousand books? The scroll sat lightly in his liver-spotted hands now. After all, he himself had helped Peter draft the decree that shocked us all. The tsar had set aside every custom, every law: he wanted to appoint his own successor and would rather leave his empire to a worthy stranger than his own, unworthy child.
How timid Alexey had been when we first met, the spitting image of his mother, Evdokia, with his veiled gaze and high, domed forehead. He couldn’t sit up straight, because Menshikov had thrashed his back and buttocks bloody and sore. Only when it was too late did Alexey grasp his fate: in his quest for a new Russia, the tsar would spare no one, neither himself, nor his only son. You were no blood of my blood, Alexey, no flesh of my flesh, and so I was able to sleep soundly. Peter, though, had been haunted by nightmares from that day on.
My heart pounded against my lightly laced bodice—I was surprised it didn’t echo from the walls—but I met Prokopovich’s gaze as calmly as I could. I wriggled my toes in my slippers, as I could not afford to faint. Prokopovich’s smile was as thin as one of the wafers he would offer in church. He knew the secrets of the human heart; especially mine.
“Read, Feofan,” I said quietly.
“Give everything to . . .” He paused, looked up, and repeated: “To . . .” Menshikov’s temper flared; he reared as if someone had struck him with a whip, like in the good old days. “To whom?” he snarled at Prokopovich. “Pray tell, Feofan, to whom?”
I could hardly breathe. The fur was suddenly much too hot against my skin.
From Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.