Author: Ellen Alpsten
Describe the book in one word: Astonishing!
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Release date: 14th May 2020 (Go Go Go!)
Before Catherine the Great existed, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. It is Spring 1699, and the strikingly beautiful, headstrong Marta has survived the brutal Russian winter in her remote Baltic village. Marta is sold by her family to a man of questionable intentions at the tender age of just fifteen. Meanwhile, Russia’s young ruler, Tsar Peter I (later, Peter the Great), is on a mission to change the course of Russian history for better or worse. Countless lives will be lost as the Tsar morphs Russia (kicking and screaming) into his vision of a Western empire. Marta faces challenge after challenge but is saved by the kindness of strangers time and time again. One night, she encounters the Tsar and her life will change forever…
Trigger warnings: sexual violence, rape, incest.
This book is truly a dazzling debut novel. Tsarina portrays the brutal realities of Russia in 1600-1700’s and the astonishing tale of how a young peasant girl managed to survive the harshest of times thanks to the kindness of strangers and her ability to adapt, to ultimately become the legitimate leader of all of Russia.
I have long been interested in learning about Russian history and have thoroughly enjoy historic fiction since devouring Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys several years ago. There were so many things that attracted me to this book – the cover, the fact its historical fiction and the fact it is about the Romanovs (whom I sadly know little about).
I loved reading Tsarina. There were times when I considered how I might rate the book; did it fall somewhere between four and five stars? Upon finishing the book, I knew instantly it had to be five stars because of how I felt. The admiration for Marta is palpable. But how could it be anything else? Her story is astonishing, truly astonishing. I learnt many things about the Russian ruler Peter the Great and Catherine I that I simply never knew, however it was a difficult read at times and sexually graphic in parts.
Marta is introduced to us as a bright 15-year-old girl, who is strong willed and full of character. But her story is a times unbearable, the graphically detailed sexual assaults and brutal physical assaults are awful. But, on reflection, they are an important part of the story of Marta because it shows how much she overcame during her life. It shows how challenging the times were for women – what it meant to be a woman and how society valued them (or not).
The contrast between the violence and the kindness of strangers is stark. Although Marta’s tale is one of misfortune, it is the kindness of others that eventually sets her on the path to become the Tsarina, wife of Peter the Great and later, the ruler of Russia. People liked her, she was clearly endearing, which I suspect is why people wanted to help her. I felt myself rooting for Marta right from the beginning.
It is quite simply a fascinating story about love, family, death, and power. You cannot have politics without power, but it is still surprising to read how absolute the Tsar was as a ruler. It is not just Marta’s struggle that is gripping, it is how she deals with people. Not everyone is kind to her and as it was back then, she knew how rude the royalty of Europe were behind her back, but she still rose to the top. She never forgot her roots and her humble beginnings. She offered kindness to household servants as she was once offered kindness by the people who saved her life.
The pace changed at different points throughout the book – sometimes it skipped ahead several years but overall, it works. There was such a large time frame to cover and so many lengthy battles took place. The book reflects the leadership battles that were being fought at any cost – human life, animals, entire villages burnt to the ground and ravaged, all in the name of victory.
In many ways the book covers women’s issues and what it was to be a woman back then. Women were things to be owned, playthings for the wealthy and generally disregarded. Marta managed to lift herself out of where she born to become the first female leader of Russia, but her journey wasn’t easy, and I suspect she was never truly welcomed by European aristocracy and leaders (although I hope some did secretly admire her, as is alluded to).
I learnt things about Peter the Great that genuinely surprised me and I am amazed that he and Marta had so many children. I know large families were the norm for that period, but it is still surprising to read.
I was going to write that I found parts of the book truly shocking. But on reflection, I found many parts shocking, for different reasons and I do not doubt that what is written is true – which is precisely what makes it more astonishing. I question in what realm it would be possible to go from being a peasant, serf, and maid, to the legitimate leader of one the biggest countries in the world? I am not sure the story is replicable today.
I highly recommend reading the book if you are interested in the Romanov’s, Russian history, or historical fiction. My highest compliments go to Ellen Alpsten for a dazzling debut novel.