Book Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Today is my spot on the Tsarina blog tour and I’m so excited to share my thoughts! I first picked up this book thinking it was a fictional account of Catherine the Great, but after I started reading I realized Tsarina is about Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great. This was exciting because I knew nothing about Catherine and was eager to learn her story.

Back of the Book:

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.

Photo credit: Andreas Stringberg

Review:

Tsarina is a beautifully written historical fiction novel that puts a realistic spin on the typical rags to riches storyline. It is graphic, uncensored, and unapologetically real. Alpsten’s writing leaves nothing to the imagination, which made this book feel like a nonfiction read more than once. I appreciated that Alpsten held nothing back when describing Catherine’s life before she married Peter because Catherine is a very real historical figure and one that I believe not many are familiar with.

The book starts out at the Winter Palace and Peter the Great has just died. We are a fly on the wall as Catherine scrambles to keep the tsar’s death a secret until she can figure out how to hold on to power. This is our first chance at seeing how quick Catherine is on her feet, something that served her well throughout her lifetime.

The book then flashes back to Easter 1699 where we meet a younger Catherine and begin to learn her origin story. Catherine grew up as a serf named Marta living a dreadful life in a remote Baltic village. She is beautiful, but illiterate and illegitimate. Marta is sold by her family as a washing maid to a horrible man that rapes and abuses her. As the first sentence of this chapter says, “My life began with a crime.” This crime is what sends Marta on the run and sets in motion a chain of events that will lead her to be the most powerful woman in Russia.

I was shocked to learn that this is Alpsten’s debut novel. The amount of research to gather the level of detail in this book must be staggering. Alpsten did a great job contrasting Catherine’s luxurious life as wife of the Tsar with the grittiness and disturbing nature of her journey to the top. She did not shy away from the abuses that were common in this period and in doing so, there are many graphic scenes depicting rape, torture, abuse, and murder. These things only amplify the dangers for a woman in Catherine’s position and expose readers to the gruesome nature of the 18th century. Additionally, Alpsten impeccably portrayed Catherine’s complex nature and personality throughout the novel.

I was very engaged through the first half of the book, which is no short story at 496 pages. However, the second half did slow down a little and seemed to steer more toward Peter and away from Catherine, which resulted in less of a connection to her character. I do wish that the second half would have been more Catherine-centric so that I felt fully invested in the outcome.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction or simply if you enjoy learning about lesser known historical figures.

Thank you to Negalley and St. Martin’s Press for my advanced copy. All opinions are my own.

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