Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage—as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir and becomes empress once he ascends the throne. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie—now called Maria—must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.
Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has lead her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.
The Romanov dynasty is perhaps one of the most famous in all of world history. Their glorious downfall, the death of the tsar and his family, and the forever-changed face of Russia have all been rehashed again and again in everything from scholarly works to popular culture. Their life, and particularly their deaths, have all but been immortalized, yet these accounts, especially those is popular culture often fail to lay the groundwork or simply gloss over the groundwork to get to the “sexy” bits. Gortner doesn’t skip the groundwork at all but rolls around in it and really builds the entire narrative around one woman, Maria Feodorovana, mother to Russia’s last tsar, the ill-fated and completely inept, Nicholas II.
Maria was the very definition of duty-bound! From the moment she was born, Maria was always intended to marry well and increase the reputation and hopefully fortunes of her family. As a princess of Denmark, Maria (her adopted Russian name!) understood her place in the world, and with some allowances by her parents, was able to choose her future husband. As it turns out, she also chose a country on the edge of collapse.
Despite little in the way of a formal education, Maria has a strong sense of common sense and for reading a situation. She understands, inherently, if she is to be accepted as a foreigner, she must understand her new country, its people, and make herself known as a force among the nobility and aristocracy. Maria does every bit of that and more, and over the course of her life, she works ceaselessly to advise and guide both her husband and her son. Through uprisings, revolutions, and assassination attempts, Maria is at the forefront of the action, often risking her own life to preserve what she holds dear. Unfortunately, for most of her life, Maria is fighting a losing battle and she is only ever able to scratch the surface of caring for a desperately lost country.
The Bottom Line: This was my first C.W. Gortner book and it will certainly not be my last! The Romanov Empress is everything I look for in historical fiction and then some. This is a sweeping tale, a saga really, that spans more than half a century and includes nearly every royal house/family in Europe. At the center of it all is an indomitable woman determined to see her family and her monarchy survive. There is a sense of impending doom from page one of this read and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Quite frankly, before this book, I too only really knew the History Channel version of the Romanov family, and I am so glad I now know far more than that glossy version. This was an absolutely enthralling tale and I heartily recommend this one to any reader fond of truly excellent historical fiction.
Pre-order now for the July 10, 2018 release: