Tsarina – by Ellen Alpsten – book review

NOTE: I received early access to this novel in exchange for writing an impartial review. Awarded four stars on Goodreads. Scheduled publication: October 13, 2020.

tsarinaAn absorbing and detailed historical novel about Russia’s first Tsarina, Catherine I (not the Great) who took over after the death of her husband, Peter the Great. It’s well-researched, deeply engaging, and a fascinating glimpse into the great divide between the peasant life into which Catherine was born and Peter’s hedonistic and opulent court.

While little is known about Catherine’s (born Marta Samuilovna Skavronskaya) early years, Alpsten has done an admirable job of breathing life into her history by drawing on documentation of the life of serfs Russia in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Born poor but beautiful, Marta is not surprisingly treated as a commodity, abused by men with power or money or both. Happenstance places her in the orbit of a powerful man at the Tsar’s court, which is how she eventually comes to the notice of the Tsar himself.

By contrast, Peter the Great’s history is well-documented and Alpsten’s portrayal is quite nuanced. While known to most of us as the great Westernizer of a backward country, Peter does NOT come off as a hero. He is single-minded, egotistical, impulsive, and brutally violent. But as it turns out, Marta’s kindness, loyalty, and love seem to moderate Peter at times, which the author seems to suggest is responsible for both Marta’s 20 year hold on the ruler and her rags-to-riches rise to the exalted position of Tsarina.

You will also meet the expected cast of supporting characters — power-hungry boyars, women exchanging their beauty for financial security, a disappointing first-born heir, and clueless doctors administering poisonous treatments. There’s also plenty of war, famine, and infidelity in this male dominated world. So, lots of drama.

ellen_alpsten
Author Ellen Alpsten Image from Curtis Brown

My criticisms of the book are few. There are a few places where the narrative seems to jump awkwardly. And I was disappointed with the contrived device the author used to cover the entirety of Catherine’s actual reign as Tsarina. But I learned a lot about a little-known woman who exercised great power at a time when most women were powerless. And I enjoyed nearly every minute of the read.

More about the author.