As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction and has a particular interest in Russian history, I absolutely inhaled every page of this book! It covers all the drama leading up to the Russian Revolution from an intimate family perspective. Only this family happens to be the Tsar’s. Awarded five stars on Goodreads.
Maria “Minnie” Feodorovna, mother of the last Tsar, Nicolas II, provides the focal point of the novel. This is her multi-generational story, spanning the years from 1864 to 1920. It begins with Dagmar (her birth name) as a teenager. A Danish princess (and sister to Alexandra who becomes the wife of England’s Edward VII), Minnie becomes engaged to the Russian heir Nicholas, who dies shortly before they are to be married. Instead, Minnie marries her dead fiance’s younger brother, who eventually becomes Tsar Alexander III and they go on to have six children.
Despite all their wealth, power, and opulent lifestyle, what works so well about this book is that this remains a family dealing with same internal difficulties common to most families; disputes over how to raise the kids, parents trying to control unacceptable behavior in their children, and worry about finding each child a suitable mate. But with that as a foundation, C. W. Gortner then layers in the struggle between autocratic rulers trying desperately to hold onto ancient power in a backward country that increasingly values more representative government. Whether to answer this struggle by tightening control or granting more freedom is at the heart of Romanov family history.
Minnie makes an interesting heroine. She wholeheartedly embraces Russia as her adopted country and grows to deeply love her husband. After she becomes a widow, she remains committed to the Romanov dynasty, but recognizes the need to address the deep suffering of the peasants in her country. Above all, she understands what it takes to honor the responsibility for governing and realizes early on that her son and daughter-in-law as woefully inept. Because instead of prioritizing their royal responsibilities and the escalating political climate of their country, both Nicolas II and his wife Alexandra remain totally fixated on each other and the health of their only son Alexei, who has inherited the deadly disease of hemophilia.
Minnie then becomes the reader’s stand-in witness as Russia confronts repeated violent assassinations, the debacle of Rasputin, World War I, and finally, the Russian Revolution. With so much true historical drama to incorporate, it’s a compelling read. And if, like me, you know the tragic end of the story, it is sometimes unsettling. I became fond of Minnie and so many of the other historical figures, I kept wanting to warn them all what was coming. But I guess that’s exactly why this is such good historical fiction. Enjoy!