Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

This post is part of a blog tour for St. Martin’s Press, who provided me with an advance copy of Tsarina for review. More information on the book and the blog tour can be found at the bottom of this post.

My experience with fiction that takes place in Russia basically extends to Katherine Arden’s medieval Russian fairy tale the Winternight Trilogy and, if we want to be really generous, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which both take place in fantasy analog versions of Russia. That’s about it.

But a few forces converged to make Tsarina, Ellen Alpsten’s debut historical novel about the life of Catherine I of Russia, a must-read for me: my well-documented love of royalty, my childhood obsession with the animated film Anastasia, Dana Schwartz’s fantastic royal history/true crime podcast Noble Blood, and one of my favorite TV series of 2020, Hulu’s The Great.

The latter is a tongue-in-cheek, not-quite-historically-accurate dramedy about the early Russian court life of Catherine the Great, who was in fact Catherine II, the namesake and granddaughter-in-law of the Catherine of Tsarina. But while The Great finds the absurdity in the opulence of the Russian court and uses it for comedic effect, Tsarina‘s exploration of that same lavishness is tonally very different, but no less satisfying.

One of my favorite things about historical fiction, especially historical fiction that features real people, is its ability to humanize larger-than-life, legendary historical figures, to show them as real people with flaws and vulnerabilities, wants and fears. Tsarina does this beautifully. We first meet Catherine as a serf named Marta, who through a combination of luck, circumstance, and her own wits and cunning, becomes the wife of Peter the Great and Empress of all Russia. (These are historical facts, so I’m not spoiling anything here.)

Catherine’s rise to wealth and power is not all diamonds and rainbows, though. The late 17th century is a brutal time to be a woman, or really to be anyone who is not the Tsar of Russia. Alpsten doesn’t shy away from the brutality and bleakness of this time, and with every threat that Catherine faces, we are immersed more deeply into the mercilessness and cruel beauty of her world. This may be a rags-to-riches story, but this is no Cinderella fairy tale.

Tsarina is a richly-imagined portrait of Imperial Russia and of the woman who dared to conquer it. It is available now wherever books are sold.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

About Tsarina

From the cover:

“Makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme.” Daisy Goodwin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter

“[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman’s colourful life and times.” —Count Nikolai Tolstoy, historian and author 

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.

Author Bio:

ELLEN ALPSTEN was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands. Upon graduating from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, she worked as a news anchor for Bloomberg TV London. Whilst working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work and a nap. Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as VogueStandpoint and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons and a moody fox red Labrador. Tsarina is her debut novel.

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