Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

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 on a stake 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.

Review. Text on the string. Conceptual 3d image

Source: NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press          Rating: 4/5 stars

If ever there was a book to deserve the word ‘saga’ attached to it, Tsarina would be that book!  From childhood to death, Tsarina traces the long and winding path of one woman, first as Marta and then as Catherine, to the highest levels of Russian life, love, and politics. 

To say Marta/Catherine’s life was easy is would do her a great disservice and undermine all she was able to accomplish in her long life.  While many only know of her later years, first as the tsar’s consort and then his tsarina, Marta/Catherine lived an entire lifetime before her glory days as the head of the Russian state.  Marta/Catherine was born into abject poverty, was essentially sold by her family to a despicable man who raped and beat regularly, lived happily for a time in a small town where she lived safely and securely with a pastor’s family, all before being taken as a prisoner of war. 

Because of her beauty, Marta/Catherine’s life as a prisoner of war was not nearly as bad as it could have been, comparatively speaking.  She was taken into the household of one of Tsar Peter’s most trusted men as a lady-in-waiting to his mistress.  While in this household, Marta/Catherine learned a great deal about the inner workings of Russian politics and the private lives of the men and women who wielded power in an ever-changing and volatile world.  Marta/Catherine was never meant to rise above her lowly station, but as luck would have it, she came to the attention of Peter.

Marta/Catherine’s first weeks and months with Peter were like a dream.  His attention and gifts were lavish, but Marta/Catherine knew his affections could change at any moment.  Though she was certain Peter adored her (and her fertility!) he was known to be a promiscuous man and it was never certain if the next conquest would also become the next consort thus displacing Marta/Catherine.  Despite all the extracurricular woman, Marta/Catherine manages to maintain her spot alongside Peter for many, many years.  Through the years, Marta/Catherine becomes simply Catherine and she bears Peter twelve children.  Catherine is politically savvy and understands her husband better than anyone alive.  Through her years by his side, she learns to read his moods, calm his anger, and protect those she holds dear.  Even in times of great fortune, Catherine is always aware of the precarious nature of her position and makes moves to secure herself and her children.

The Bottom Line:  This is truly a long and winding saga that doesn’t get truly interesting until Catherine become a prisoner of war and a member of the tsar’s inner circle.  Catherine is one shrewd woman and as she becomes more deeply enmeshed in Peter’s life and the affairs of state, she learns to how read situations, how to choose her allies, and how to manage Peter.  Though things don’t always go according to plan – sometimes the results are simply disastrous and tragic – Catherine still manages to come out on top.  For my money, I would have liked to see less of Catherine’s early life and more of her time post-Peter.  Catherine’s name is renowned and though the book certainly covers a great deal of how that happened, I would have liked to have read and known more about her time as the sole ruler of Russia.  My enjoyment of this book and my rating come, not from the first third of the book – that bit is slow and often not terribly interesting – but from the latter two-thirds which is filled with plans, plots, intrigue, excess, and the exploits of one of Russia’s most famous (infamous?) rulers.  If you can get through the first third of this book, it is well worth the trouble.

Releasing October 13, 2020: Goodreads| Amazon| B&N | Kobo| Hardcover| Audible

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