author: ellen alpsten
pages: [hardcover] 496
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.
Tsarina is a book intended to throw off your expectations from chapter one. Within the most glamorous settings, among the most powerful people, shocking and gruesome events are retold. The book reflects that in gorgeous prose that recounts terrible trials from main character Catherine’s life in poverty, to marrying Peter the Great, to, after his death, finding the opportunity to make herself the most powerful woman in the Russian Empire.
This book is not light reading. Catherine, known as a child as Marta, suffers greatly because of several men in events that are told in detail, so readers who may be triggered by this should consider it in advance.
Catherine quickly learns she is capable of defending herself, using her mind and what resources are available to change her situation, and begins to move upward in station. There is danger for her everywhere, but with that comes some slim chance at greatness.
Other pieces of historical fiction are often bogged down with details that stall and stagnate the plotline. Tsarina reads more like a character study, focusing on Catherine and her life, her many tragedies and successes, providing historical context and information within the existence of these events. I liked this setup, particularly because I knew nothing about her or, really, the Russian Empire from this time period. The writing makes it easy to be immersed in her story.
If you are interested in historical fiction or overlooked women in history, I recommend Tsarina.