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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."

467 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2002

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About the author

Ellen Alpsten

20 books291 followers
Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands. Upon graduating from the l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, 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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,039 reviews
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
August 9, 2020
when i think of russian rulers, my mind immediately goes to the fall of the romanov family. so reading this was a really enlightening experience to learn about another point in time in the familys history, because i dont think i would have learned about it otherwise.

and this does exactly what i want from an historical fiction novel - its takes key people from history and humanises them. they are no longer facts and dates but become characters. granted, i know the author takes creative liberties with this story as there is not much known about catherine I in her early years, but shes still an interesting character.

i will say that, even though i love historical fiction, this particular time period may not be my thing. the story is very repetitive for a lot of it, bouncing back and forth between war and the birth of children. heirs and political influence were really the only thing that could keep catherine relevant, so i get it, but i started skimming every time they decided to have another kid.

so even though i enjoyed learning about catherine I, i found the circumstances surrounding her life to be a bit uninteresting to me personally. but this is an easy book to recommend is you enjoy russian history, royal families, war and political strategy, and historical fiction from the early 2000s (this is a rerelease).

thanks st. martins press for the ARC!

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Matt.
936 reviews28.6k followers
January 17, 2021
“I drew Peter [the Great’s] last will from my sleeve and the scroll lay in my lap, so close to the flames. Its letters blurred as my tears came: real, heartfelt tears, despite the sense of relief. I still had a long day and longer weeks ahead of me and I would need many tears. The people, and the court, would want to see a grief-stricken widow with tousled hair, scratched cheeks, a broken voice, and swollen eyes. Only my show of love and grief could make the unthinkable acceptable, render my tears more powerful than any bloodline. So I may as well start weeping now. The tears weren’t hard to summon: in a few hours I might be either dead, or wishing I was dead, or I’d be the most powerful woman in all the Russias…”
- Ellen Alpsten, Tsarina: A Novel

One of the most powerful aspects of historical fiction is its ability to step beyond the historical record, into the shadows and absences of the known world, and to fill in the gaps in a satisfying way. The result is not, of course, historical fact, but if done right, it certainly feels honest. If it is not necessarily the truth, it is a truth, one that brings us closer to people who lived and struggled, loved and fought and died long before we came into being.

In that respect, Ellen Alpsten’s choice of a protagonist in Tsarina: A Novel is truly inspired. Martha Skavronskaya’s life followed one of the more remarkable trajectories in history. Born a peasant, Martha somehow – through twists and turns that exist mainly as myth and lore – became the mistress of Tsar Peter the Great, the titanic world-historical figure who bloodily wrenched Russia toward modernity. When Peter the Great died, Martha – now called Catherine Alexeyevna – surmounted the throne herself, as Catherine I, Empress of Russia.

(Side note: Russian nobility tended to share the same handful of names, reusing them like socks. To avoid any confusion, I should emphasize that Catherine I is not Catherine the Great, who came to power some thirty-five years after Catherine I’s death).

The thing that makes Martha/Catherine such a wonderful focal point for a novel is that while we can trace the broad outlines of her life, especially after becoming entangled with Peter, many details (both large and small) are either unknown, obscure, or hotly contested. As Robert Massie wrote in his prize-winning biography, Peter the Great: His Life and World, Catherine’s “life before meeting with the Tsar in 1703, when she was nineteen, is only conjecture.” By utilizing the dramatic license of fiction, Alpsten is able to mold this conjecture into a viable tale of Catherine’s origins, rise, and ascendancy, while also spinning a really entertaining yarn, carefully choosing which legends to discard, and which to treat as true.

(For example, a history book might quibble about the true relationship between Catherine and Willem Mons, her comely chamberlain. Rumor and gossip have long held that the two were lovers. Evidence for this, however, is thin, and historians such as Massie – for instance – do not credit the proposition. Alpsten, free from any documentary constraints, chooses a different interpretation).

Tsarina begins with a prologue that covers the death of Peter the Great, who had not designated an heir. It was a fraught moment for Catherine, pregnant with both danger and opportunity.

From this jumping-off point, the book goes back in time, presenting itself as an extended flashback, told in the first-person from Catherine’s perspective. She recounts her life as an illiterate serf in modern-day Estonia, her time as a servant in the home of Lutheran pastor Ernst Gluck, her marriage to a Swedish dragoon, and her capture by Russian forces following the seizure of Marienburg, after which she came into the orbit of the towering, mercurial Peter Romanov (who is given a marvelous characterization that neatly captures his contradictions).

Occasionally, Alpsten interrupts the flashbacks by returning us to St. Petersburg, where Catherine and Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov plot to take advantage of a fluid situation where a misstep could mean death. Eventually, these two plot threads merge into one.

The reputation that proceeds Tsarina is that it is sexually graphic (reviews have run the gamut from “bodice ripper” to “smut” to “soft-core porn”). There are certainly more sex scenes in this novel than in most popular fiction these days, though it is hardly pornographic. On a continuum of Ken Follett in Night over Water to John Updike in Rabbit Redux, I would put this squarely in the middle.

I have learned, recently, that many – if not most – readers prefer that canoodling takes place offstage. I don’t hold with this position, obviously, but reasonable people can disagree. Thus, this should serve as a warning that you might want to skip this one, since there are probably five or six real set-pieces involving adult activity, with shorter passages scattered throughout.

Nevertheless, I will say that the scenes of unclothed intimacy described by Alpsten all serve a true narrative purpose. There is a scene of explicit sexual violence early on that becomes an important motivation for Catherine’s character. A later, more tenderer love scene is a balm, while her boudoir behavior with Peter gives her an important bit of leverage. There is definitely a certain level of detail to these encounters, but that is in keeping with the book’s purpose. After all, we know – since it is a fact nearly 300 years in the making – how Tsarina ends. In order to compensate for our cognizance of the already-written past, Alpsten has to avoid dwelling on what happens next, and instead emphasize how it felt to live these times. Tsarina is not about the what and when, but tries to divine the why and how. The tactility of her details helps in that regard.

It should be noted, however, that the graphic descriptions are not relegated solely to maneuvering between the sheets. There are also some grimly painted word-pictures involving torture and illness, both harsh realities in 18th century Russia. Indeed, of all the horrors recounted in Tsarina, the most poignant turns out to be infant mortality. Catherine gave birth to twelve of Peter’s children, and ten of them shuffled off this coil before adulthood. The psychological toll that takes – a thing not likely be discussed in a nonfiction work – is minutely examined here.

Tsarina is by no means a perfect novel, or even a great one. The plot is very episodic, and at times, Catherine’s meteoric rise seems almost too easy. The writing, occasionally, relies on cliched phrasing that takes you out of the otherwise wonderfully recreated world (Alpsten’s obvious research is woven seamlessly into the story).

Furthermore, there are times when Catherine just doesn’t make any sense. That, however, is not entirely Alpsten’s fault. There is a saying that writing fiction is harder than writing history, because fiction has to make sense. The difficulty with historical fiction is that you are straddling that line, where you have to follow a person’s acknowledged course, while reverse engineering believable motivations. Still, there were several times in Tsarina – especially the section starring Willem Mons – where Catherine engaged in some plot-required stupidity that totally did not fit with her character (and was not required by agreed-upon history, either).

Having some background with Russia in this period was certainly helpful in reading Tsarina. It definitely heightened my enjoyment to see how Alpsten connected the dots of Catherine’s life in a way that – barring a time machine – only a novelist can accomplish.

Unlike that other Catherine, the woman who began as a peasant named Martha Skavronskaya never got a cool descriptor after her forename. The second Catherine, as well as the first Catherine’s husband, have both survived the ages as “the Great.”

And yet, whose life was most extraordinary?

Both Peter and Catherine II had their own obstacles to hurdle, but Peter was a Romanov, and Catherine a Pomeranian princess. They were born with legitimate visions of thrones in their heads. The transformation of Martha into Catherine, from a “soul” to an empress, from a nothing to the ruler of one of the largest nations on earth, is one of the more stunning – and forgotten – climbs a person has ever made.
Profile Image for Liz.
2,145 reviews2,763 followers
October 4, 2020
This is an interesting historical fiction that shows that shrewdness and cunning can trump book smarts every time. Catherine Alexeyvana was Peter the Great’s second wife. She was born poor, never learned to read, yet becomes the first woman to rule Russia in her own right.
I knew nothing of Peter the Great or Russia in the early 18th century. Russia was still very primitive in those days, but Peter was determined to make it more like the European countries that he so admires. Alpsten totally captures the time, the place, even the weather. (“ a cold that would freeze the phlegm in your throat before you could hawk it up”). Her prose sometimes borders on excessive and in places I felt I was drowning in descriptions.
The book portrays the vast amount of men as depraved and women as nothing but sexual chattel. There are numerous sex scenes, including multiple rapes. This is a brutal society, and Alpsten shows us every bit of brutality and mistreatment. This a society of the haves and have nots, serfs are slaves, soldiers are fodder for the Russian war machine. If you have a problem with gruesome scenes, you’re well advised to steer clear of this book.
Too often historical fiction is nothing but romance with some historical facts thrown in. I give Alpsten credit for doing her research and providing a better balance. I would have liked a more expanded Author’s Note showing where literary license might have been taken. But a search of Wikipedia shows a fairly close adherence to the facts.
My thanks to netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Jaidee.
605 reviews1,204 followers
October 10, 2022
1.5 "overwrought, inconsistent, gratuitous" stars !!

Thank you to Netgalley, the author and St. Martin's Press for an e-copy. I am providing my honest review. This was released November 2020.

Whew...I am very glad that this book is finished. I only completed this work as a way to understand this novel's prose and structure and why it almost completely did not work for me.

This is a historical fiction biography of Russia's Catherine...the tsarina...Peter the Great's second wife.

For me this book was a disaster albeit at times educational and occasionally entertaining. I want to be clear that this was far from the worst of historical fictions that I attempted but all the heavy flaws combined with my pretty constant exasperation prevent this novel from even getting to two star quality.

The book combines poorly done romantic melodrama with quasi historical fiction with very self-important chick lit overtones. This is extremely jarring and rings very false to my reading ears.

Catherine's personality psychology is extremely inconsistent and superficial. I did not believe at all in this author's interpretation of her temperament or life choices.

There is way too much slapstick violence and gratuitous sex that feels extremely cheap. The emotions seem false, overwrought and vacillate frequently.

The writer is very talented in being able to bring in tastes, smells and sights of the times and for me this was probably the only redeeming quality to this book.

Really this is a one star book that I am giving an extra half star because I wanted to finish despite my mostly very poor reading experience.

I do own the sequel but will not be moving forward in this series.

Currently reading
October 5, 2022
Historical dramas were HUGE in the 2000s because of the Other Boleyn Girl and once everyone got sick of Tudor England, people expanded to dramas in other time periods. I was going to say that the summary was giving me strong early-2000s publication vibes, and then I looked at the pub date and realized it was originally published in 2004!!!! THIS IS A RERELEASE!! YAS

Somehow I never read this one in my historical fiction frenzy...
Profile Image for Annette.
798 reviews382 followers
March 27, 2020
Catherine Alexeyevna (1684-1727) was of humble beginnings, becoming the second wife of Peter the Great and Empress of Russia from 1725 until her death. “Pulling herself out of poverty and servitude through her intellect, wit, and sensuality, she rose to become one of the most powerful women in Russia.”

Village of Livonia, 1699. Marta, as she was known back then, is nine years old. Her childhood brings a vivid portrayal of peasants’ life, meaning pretty much suffering.

A merchant from Walk, Vassily, needs a maidservant. When passing through the village of Livonia, Marta catches his eye. She is sold by her parents into servitude.

The town of Walk is something she has never seen before, the number of people crowding the streets, even the number of chimneys – she lost the count, and all the different foods sold by vendors.

In the coming weeks, she learns how to make those delicious meals. But life under a big roof with some comforts is not easier. “Loneliness lunged at me like a wolf at a lone traveler, burying its claws into my soul.”

And when the kindness touches upon her life, she realizes that she had no idea that such kindness could exist. She finds a home and a purpose.

Tsar Peter with August the Strong declare war on mighty Sweden.

When the town of Marienburg, where she resides, is under Russian siege, she meets the legendary Russian General Shermetev. At his tent, she meets “the most powerful among the powerful, the tsar’s most loyal and absolute friend,” Menshikov.

When she refuses to be a toy between men, Shermetev encourages her with these words: “Use life’s surprises to your advantage. See your power over men like a hand of cards; play them, to trump your life.”

Marta is an incredible character. She is born as a serf, thus she is illiterate. But she is observant and a quick learner. She has her high and low moments and in those low moments she receives unexpected help or guidance like she was bound for a higher purpose.

The story also offers a vivid portrayal of Peter the Great. A man who fought many battles, who would not tolerate anyone’s disagreement including pope’s, who refused marrying a couple due to religious law not being followed. When it fits Peter, the Russian customs disappear. A very cruel man, bringing many atrocities.

The last 30% of the story is a bit drawn-out. The rich historical background, vivid portrayal of Peter’s cruelty and Catherine’s twelve pregnancies and births are surrounded by other dramas and characters and that’s when it gets a bit too much, the focus on Catherine gets lost and the story falls flat in those moments. Some of it could be condensed.

My favorite part is the first part of the story, the story of incredible girl named Marta, who in the brutal world meets kind people.

This story involves some graphic lust. You can make a point of lust taking place without graphic descriptions.

It is certainly a story crafted by a very talented writer.

Source: ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for D. B. Guin.
842 reviews75 followers
April 15, 2020
The only word to describe this book is gratuitous.

Marta is a peasant girl who, through various horrible circumstances, goes on to become the wife of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, and eventually rule Russia herself as Catherine the First after Peter dies. Now, as you would expect, the life of an Eastern European serf is not awesome. As a teenager, Marta is sold to a passing Russian for a silver coin, and things just get worse from there.

I almost want to thank this book, at least, for the things I learned. I learned that Catherine the Great was Catherine the Second, and that another Catherine ruled before her. I learned things about Peter the Great that I will never forget. But was the damage worth the few historical details I will carry away with me? Almost certainly not.

This book has nothing to offer but rape, murder, more rape, orgies, drunken debauchery, incest, torture, more rape, pregnancies, and an infinite amount of awkward sex scenes, all presented with enough NC-17 explicit detail to make you want to gouge your eyes out. If you took out all the time Catherine spends being pregnant, giving birth, and engaging in various sexual encounters both willingly and unwillingly, there would be about enough information left to form a Wikipedia page of moderate length.

I genuinely wish I hadn't read this book. Obviously a life such as Catherine's wouldn't have been all roses -- it would be unrealistic to whitewash it -- but I don't need to go through each rape with her in horrible technicolor. Would she want to be remembered for that? Wallowing in so much human misery for simple entertainment is just painful and vulgar and disgusting and gratuitous.
Profile Image for Michelle.
637 reviews502 followers
December 8, 2020
5 Stars! More of this, please!

I love learning about strong women in history and Catherine I of Russia is a fantastic subject to write a book about. I think more casual fans of historical fiction or Russian history will enjoy the front half more than the second, but I found both parts riveting. With my Russian history classes in school, I remember spending a long time on Peter The Great. He was responsible for pulling Russia out of the dark ages, by trying to modernize them in ways more like Europe. I may have, but what I don’t remember is learning anything about his second wife, Marta (or Catherine as she was later renamed). Her life is absolutely remarkable and Ms. Alpsten did a phenomenal job of bringing her to life. Tsarina was meticulously researched, but was also masterfully condensed for how much ground she covered in time.

If you're newer to historical fiction or only somewhat interested in Russian History I could see where this would be a struggle. This book goes into a LOT of detail. However, I was pleasantly surprised. My only slight criticism is that the jumps from present to past were a little jarring, until the timelines became a little more clear.

Overall, I would highly recommend this and it definitely is one of my favorites of the year. I look forward to the next book written by Ellen Alpsten!

Thanks to St. Martins and Goodreads for the giveaway win in an exchange for an honest review.

Review Date: 12/08/2020
Publication Date: 11/10/2020
Profile Image for CYIReadBooks (Claire).
637 reviews104 followers
August 9, 2020
Calling on lovers of historical fiction! Tsarina is a novel that you must read -- especially if you are a fan of Russian history.

Tsarina is a novel based on the life of Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great. It is an epic tale of the life and times of a serf washerwoman who rose to the crowned position of the Empress of Russia. One can say that Tsarina is like a Cinderella story. It is, and yet it isn't due to the portrayal of the dark side of the rise to glory. That dark side is Catherine having to cope with Peter's constant infidelity, the loss of most of her children, the ravages of war, and the untempered rage of her husband.

I found Tsarina to be a very enjoyable read. The author has done a lot of research into that era and her depictions really take you back in time so that you get immersed in the story. However, I did get a bit bogged down by the interchanging names of the characters, but that still didn't take away from my enjoyment.

Overall, a solid four stars -- I really like it.

Thank you to St. Martin's Press through NetGalley for the digital ARC. The review herein is my own and contains my honest thoughts and opinions.
Profile Image for Laura Tenfingers.
564 reviews90 followers
August 6, 2020
Tsarina tells the story of Catherine I, who started life as a serf named Marta and rose to the dizzying heights of Tsarina and Empress of All the Russias. This book is not for the faint of heart. It is raw and seems realistic, but it is brutal. There is rape, murder, rape, torture, rape, sexual depravity, rape, more torture, more rape, more murder, and around and around we go.

I was really engaged in the first part of the book where we learn of her origins and learn about life as a serf in late 17th century Lithuania. It's brutal, it's depressing but fascinating.

As she gets a little bit older and is bought by Peter Tsar of Russia, the narrative changes a bit and I wasn't as engaged. We spend more time learning about Peter, the founding of St Petersburg, the war with Sweden and the drunken debauchery and sexual depravity that was the Russian Court of the early 18th century. I felt less connected to Catherine and totally disgusted by the way Peter treated everybody and the violence that permeated that life. Sadly Catherine wasn't much of a flushed out character for most of this.

I thought the narrative with alternating past and present worked well and the suspenseful opening is left in suspense until quite late in the book leaving us wondering until the end. Unfortunately I wasn't invested in Catherine anymore so I didn't care as much as I would have liked, but I learned a lot about someone I didn't even know existed.

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Lori Lamothe.
Author 12 books112 followers
November 25, 2020
When I first started reading Ellen Alpsten’s historical novel I had to put it down. Not because it wasn’t good—quite the opposite. The cover and title gave me the impression Tsarina would be another Cinderella story a la Disney+ with some steamy scenes thrown in for good measure. Poor girl with a heart of gold captures a king’s love and becomes wealthy not to mention powerful.

Yada, yada.

Don’t get me wrong. Tsarina is about Marta Helena Skowrońska, a peasant washerwoman whose beauty and compassion causes Peter the Great to fall in love with her. But it’s not Disney fare, not by a long shot. It’s intensely dark, full of Machiavellian power plays, death, exploitation, cruelty and brutality—with a little bit of love thrown in. At times Alpsten’s descriptions of Russia’s wintry landscape dazzled me. At others, her graphic depictions of the primitive behavior that prevailed in 18th-century Moscow surprised and disturbed me. And in case you’re wondering, there are plenty of steamy scenes. Others…not so much.

But back to why I set down the book.

I’d heard of Peter the Great’s efforts to westernize his country and had even visited St. Petersburg as a student (which, by the way, is gorgeous). I also knew a little about Catherine the Great, who ruled decades after Peter’s death. But I never gave any thought to Peter’s second wife. I’m not sure I even learned about her in my Russian history class—or if I did, I promptly forgot about her. So when I requested Tsarina I was half under the impression the book would be about Catherine the Great. I didn’t realize Marta changed her name to Catherine Alexeyevna when she was christened in 1705. I also didn’t know Catherine I ran the country for two years after Peter’s death—making her the first woman to rule Russia.

So after I read a few chapters I had to know if Alpsten was mostly making stuff up. She wasn’t. From what I could tell from my random googling, she stuck pretty closely to fact. Which, for me, made the novel even more readable. The author’s note at the end of the book confirmed what my search had told me: Alpsten did her homework.

The only thing I felt didn’t wholly work was the frame story. Tsarina begins at Peter’s death bed and it takes a long time for the narrative to circle back to that moment—the entire novel, in fact. Something about that long interval didn’t quite gel for me. I also expected a little more about Catherine’s time on the throne. But the book is more about her rise to power and less about the time afterward, when she actually has to exercise it. It’s also about the internal changes her meteoric rise force upon her. Peter can be wonderfully charming…yet he’s also a monster. Likewise, Catherine has to sacrifice certain qualities along the way. As is true of the real-life tsarina, she is a complex character who lived a remarkable life.

If you’re looking for a powerfully realistic historical tale, then I recommend this book. Much thanks to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Frankie.
937 reviews65 followers
May 19, 2020
OMG, this is so bloody amazing!!
I am blown away by the quality of this book, this is never a debut, surely someone is lying to me?? This book has pure intoxicating, indulgent class written all over it. It’s a fascinating, dark tale of a woman so few of heard of – I do count myself in that category. It’s a captivating mix of compelling history, sex, violence and the wonderful story of a woman who was an essential part of history, a woman who fought to gain her place and the respect she deserved.
I am astounded that I had never heard of Catherine I of Russia before now, which strikes me as not just amazing that this brilliantly intelligent and ruthless woman appears to have disappeared from history but also that those might women who came after her; such as the legendary Catherine the great have a lot to thank Catherine I for. She was an extraordinarily cunning, intelligent and determined woman who will do everything she can to keep her place. I really admire Catherine – whose birth name was Marta – she came from humble origins, illegitimate and tough she is sold off by her family and she then was passed from pillar to post; used, violated, humiliated and abused until finally catching the eye of Tsar Peter. Which is not surprising as Marta was an incredible young woman, she was a born survivor, beautiful and alluring with a keen wit. They share a long marriage of ups and downs and lots and lots of sex, he isn’t the perfect husband anything but he is prone to quite shocking behaviour but she keeps her head high and fights to keep her place right up to and after his death she is a strong woman and I do hugely admire her.
As well as being a dramatic and brilliantly vivid tale of danger and hardship this really shows just how debauched the Russian aristocratic court was… My goodness, it’s hot and steamy and quite shocking, there a lot of romping around the bed-chamber – Ouh la la, who knew that the Russian court could be so hot and lustful? It actually reminds me of a mixture of the tv series’ Versailles, The Tudors and The Devil’s Whore, if you’ve watched any you will have an inkling what I mean by sex-mad aristocrats.
It isn’t the easiest of reads, at times it can be uncomfortable and there are some truly harrowing and shocking moments, which are all the more disturbing and uncomfortable to read because this is based on a true story and the abuses, the violence the manipulations all most like did happen which again is shocking.
An advisory note, even if you love your historical fiction do be prepared for some scenes that are uncomfortable but essential to the entirety of the story. If you are of a more sensitive disposition then this may not be the best book, personally, I think it’s utterly amazing, easily one of the best of the years but I have always preferred my historical’s to have a darker feel to them. All I am saying is just take heed because I can guarantee that once you do start reading you won’t be able to stop, it consumes you, it pulls you into the dark, vodka-soaked and turbulent world of the Russian court.
This is thought-provoking, richly textured and enthralling tale of the strength and lengths a woman will go to survive, I cannot recommend this enough.
This was a complimentary copy which I voluntarily reviewed as a part of this blog tour.
Profile Image for Anna.
229 reviews71 followers
January 19, 2023
Phew, what a story! The last sentence of the note on historical accuracy, and the very last sentence in this book is: “and anyway, Martha’s tale could only have been invented by life itself” - and it is hard to disagree with that. It is an unbelievable, breathtaking account of an unimaginable transformation, from a life that was worth nothing, to a position that controls the lives and deaths of millions, full of details, colours and scents of an early 18th century Russian court, that is no less exotic or strange than this extraordinary story itself.
Catherine I of Russia, originally Marta Helena Skowrońska, was born in the family of a Polish peasants in what is now Latvia. Through an undocumented chain of events (which the author imagined to be not less dramatic than the later events), at the age of 19 she became a member of a household of Alexy Menishkov, the Tsar’s best friend. This is where the historical records register Marta’s first meeting the Tsar. Soon after that, she became one of his many mistresses but their relationship was unlike any other in Peter the Great’s life.
He was a born autocrat. A hyperactive visionary, regulating every detail around him, remaking his realm as he saw fit to transform it from a Muscovite state into what he believed to be modern Europe. He was unpredictable and controlling, momentarily switching from joy to menace and his court could not have been anything else than terrified. Against that background, the unafraid, always cheerful and uncomplaining Marta must have been quite a change. She was a formidable drinking companion, somehow always able to calm him down when he suffered one of his epileptic fits and always ready to keep him company in whatever circumstances, including his endless military campaigns.
For the first time they got married in secret, and officially only after nearly ten years of relationship. She was pregnant twelve times but only two of their children (both girls) survived until adulthood. The bond between them was really very strong. They shared parenthood and grief and after twenty years Peter also decided to elevate her to the highest possible honors and make her the Empress of Russia. When he died without a male heir in 1725, she ruled Russia by herself until her own death two years later.
I can’t decide if I thought that Cathrine was an incredibly strong and confident woman, or if she possibly has lacked imagination. The book suggests that they really loved each other, until a certain point anyway, but still spending nearly twenty years, being nobody and having nothing of her own at a complete mercy of a despotic, absolute monarch, a man whose one nod could create or destroy life (including her own) or cause her an unimaginable pain is far beyond my comprehension.
It bothered me at first that the sex scenes were so graphic. It also bothered me that the beginning of the story was so improbable, but having reached the end, I have to admit that both details fit the whole quite well. The improbability is the theme of Martas history, so the details of her life that the author had to imagine, are not any less strange than what is historically documented, and as for the explicitness of sex… well that too feels like a fitting detail in the life of a mistress turned wife and wife turned empress, of Peter the Great, whose ability and will to exercise any form of self-restraint did not seem to be existent at all.
Profile Image for Andrea.
800 reviews30 followers
August 8, 2021
I like to think of this book as my (personal) literary discovery of 2021! When it was published last year I was vaguely aware of it, seeing it available in e-formats at my library, but I'm guilty of judging a book by its cover because I assumed it was not for me. Perhaps others have done the same, because it just doesn't seem to be as well-known as it deserves. Luckily for me, my late discovery means the sequel, The Tsarina's Daughter, is out already so I can jump straight in.

Time and time again I am reminded that truth is often stranger and more fascinating than fiction. This book is that! It is the story of Catherine I of Russia. Not the Great one, but the first one. It's the ultimate rags to riches tale, of a beautiful young Polish serf who grows up to become the first Empress of all the Russias. It's taken me quite a while to sit to write this review because I've been down the Romanov rabbit-hole since I finished reading it; it's ignited such a strong desire to know and understand more. From what I can ascertain this is a fairly truthful retelling of Marta/Catherine's story, with one or two events and characters changed, but with the author's full disclosure in her notes (I don't mean to imply that it's a scholarly work; it is well-researched fiction). Not only is it reliable, but it's also a great romp - as entertaining as anything by my favourite historical fiction authors. My only caveat to that is the fact that I listened to the audiobook, so I don't know whether print would have had the same impact on me. Alpsten doesn't shy away from the violence and debauchery of the time, but balances it with vivid imagery of the clothes and food and charmingly intimate or vulnerable scenes between Catherine and her staff or children. Oh, and the twelve pregnancies...

Despite it being quite a lengthy book (17-18 hours), I devoured it quickly, going back to listen at every opportunity. Anna Krippa has the perfect neutral accent for this book, and I happily overlooked the occasional idiosyncratic pronunciation for the pleasure of listening to the Russian names simply rolling off her tongue.

I simply cannot wait to get stuck into the next book, about one of Catherine's surviving children, Elizabeth. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Iustina Dinulescu.
184 reviews52 followers
June 13, 2021
„A te naște femeie este o pedeapsă uneori. […] Privește puterea pe care o ai asupra bărbaților ca pe niste cărți de joc; joacă-le astfel încât să-i bați pe ceilalți.”

Dacă ar fi să numesc ceva ce mi-a plăcut cel mai mult la Țarina nu aș putea sub nicio formă să mă gândesc doar la ceva anume. Mi-a plăcut tot. Mi-a plăcut enorm și ținând cont că de la începutul anului și până acum nu m-a mai impresionat atât de mult o carte în afară de Grădina de vară, probabil că va fi în topul celor mai frumoase cărți citite anul acesta. Uneori, mi-a amintit de Copilul care a găsit soarele noaptea, pe de o parte datorită scriiturii, pe de altă parte datorită acțiunii, a perioadei, a jocurilor de putere.

Așadar, dacă sunteți în căutarea unei cărți care să vă impresioneze, Țarina este o carte pe care nu aveți voie să o ratați!

Citește toată recenzia ⬇️
46 reviews3 followers
December 28, 2019
I received a free copy of this book as a Goodreads Giveaway.

Tsarina is a fictionalized account of the life of Catherine I of Russia, told in the first person. Catherine rose from peasant origins in the Baltic region to become the second wife of Peter the Great and, ultimately, sole ruler of Russia upon Peter's death.

The ascent of such an obscure figure to the highest levels of power can be the basis for a fascinating literary historical novel. When I requested the novel, I expected Wolf Hall set in the Russian Court of the early 1700s. This novel is not that. It is a historical romance novel using as its structure the life of Catherine. To its credit, it sticks largely to the known events of Catherine's life and Peter's reign. Nevertheless, it is really a "bodice ripper."

Therefore, I am not the intended audience for this book and am reluctant to write an extended review measuring it against a genre it probably was not intended to occupy.

If you are not put off by prose such as "In his arms I was a woman once more, not just an Empress," then in the words of an 18th century Russian woman in this book "Go for it."

As Abraham Lincoln said in a review of a book: :"I suppose people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."

Profile Image for Out of the Bex.
232 reviews118 followers
October 13, 2020
Rarely have I been as disappointed in a book as I have been in Tsarina over the last few weeks. It started well. I even gave early recommendations of it to my fellow antiquarians and russologists. These were recommendations I sadly revoked as I read deeper into Ellen Alpsten's republished novel. Perhaps most disheartening is the incredible potential in this story to be told well and on a grand scale. There is enough material in Catherine's rise to power to fill many pages more than even the longest fantasy series. Hers is a story so rare and so startlingly unbelievable as to need very little influence from fiction. And so, it is with great despondency that I report to you how much I feel this book failed in its endeavors to capture such an epic true story from our history.

Shall I put it to you bluntly? Tsarina is erotica pretending to be historical fiction. Alpsten's interpretation focuses so intensely on salaciousness that she inadvertently wastes the much needed page space for more necessary matters of comes complex historical fiction; things like character development, exploration into complex socio-political parallels, war strategy, and well-documented culture. If she had dismissed even half the lewd scenes she would have had enough time in her storyline to create a passable plot. Alas, she missed all the opportunity Catherine's true story offers in place of her much inferior fictional one.

To be clear, debauchery is not the only problem with Tsarina. There are also major weaknesses in repetitive sentence structures and phrases, the worst of which is the repetitive use of the description "like a child"—a phrase repeated so much (twice within two pages at one point) it would make a fun drinking game for any good-time Charlies out there.

I am perhaps more cruel a reviewer when there is great potential in a book which subsequently fails. Better to be terrible from the beginning than rope me in with false promises and hang me with the tether.
Profile Image for Theresa Smith.
Author 5 books176 followers
June 16, 2020
‘My life began with a crime.’

This is was quite a novel, both in size and scope. It falls easily into that category of ‘epic saga’ and while it weighed heavily in my hands, I really couldn’t put it down. The edition that I was reading was an ARC and it didn’t yet have the historical notes or acknowledgements included in the back that I expect the finished edition to have. As such, I’m not able to confirm how closely the events in the novel align with the actual true history; a bit of a shame as I always enjoy finding out what is based on truth and what is fully made up. Nevertheless, just from reading this novel I am able to judge that the author has done an immense amount of research on Russian history. And this is where the novel fully earns its five stars from me. The author has detailed such exacting descriptions of life in Russia during the set era, from the customs to the food to the weather and even the way the cities would have smelt. This novel truly is a history enthusiasts dream and if you are keen on Russian history, then you will be in raptures even more over it.

However, if you are expecting a story about a glamourous royal court giving birth to an emerging Russian culture, hold that thought. Time and time again I was astonished at the depravity and general brutish, uncouth, and uncivilised nature of the people who made up Russia’s elite. Take this as an example:

‘We left Mon Bijou two days later. I felt sorry for the Queen of Prussia once again as I walked through her small palace’s once perfectly presented rooms. Many of the high, polished windows had been shattered and shards of glass lay everywhere. The Persian rugs were trampled and I spotted burn holes from cigars or careless fire-laying. Belgian damask curtains hung in tatters and the gilded wall panelling in one room had been demolished. Chandeliers of Bohemian crystal and candlesticks of ivory had been smashed; Delft tiles lay broken while soot covered the fine parquet. On the furniture, carving skills had been practised. The faces in some of the gilt-framed portraits had been cut to pieces by countless blades. Oh, yes, Peter’s men had felt at home in Berlin. I doubted we would be invited there again.’

There was, in general, such little regard, not only for property, but for the lives of others. It was disconcerting to read about children throwing rotten vegetables at the servants for fun; even more so to read of the adults doing it! But this was very much a top down approach, with Tsar Peter the worst offender of all. His entire Russian empire was built on the skeletons of those who were forced into his armies. St Petersburg itself was raised out of the swamps by the slave labour of serfs. If you ran away once, your nose was cut off. If you ran away again, your ears were cut off. A third time? Further torture that you may or may not survive; it didn’t matter either way because your life was worth nothing and there were millions with which to replace you. I cannot even imagine what moving, much less working, in such cold and arctic conditions must have been like. But being born as anything other than a serf didn’t guarantee your safety either. This is a Tsar who tortured his own so to death for a reason of his own making. Everyone’s life was dispensable; everyone was just one whisper away from being tortured or sent to work in mine camps or convents, or worse. There was always worse.

‘During my years with the Tsar I had witnessed many atrocities. Men had their caps nailed to their heads because they did not pull them off fast enough upon Peter’s arrival. Monks and nuns had their guts slashed because they had dared to call his decisions blasphemous. Old-fashioned Muscovites who had questioned the direction Peter was taking the country in, were smothered with molten metal.
Nothing had prepared me for what it meant to die on the stake. The man’s screams tore apart the air of the hot Moscow summer’s day before they faded to a faint whimper at nightfall, after endless hours of pain. His dark blood kept on seeping over the stones of the Red Square, which was true to its name that day, and the stench of his dying drifted into the Kremlin, strangling my soul.’

Peter the Great was very much a man of enormous vision. He had been educated in Europe and saw so much potential for Russia, and yet his vision extended beyond advancement. He wanted to refashion Russia into something it wasn’t. A conversion of East to West. There appeared to be only one peaceful year for Russia in Peter’s entire reign; he was always warring for further territory. St Petersburg, his jewel of a city, created for the new Russia, was built on what had formerly been Swedish lands. He was effectively moving Russia out of the East, geographically, not just symbolically, and setting it firmly into the West. The cost of this was catastrophically enormous. He was a madman. Absolutely diabolical. Riddled with syphilis, and by the time of his death, he was completely out of control.

‘One could for ever and ever praise the merits of the dead Tsar Peter, the greatness, the uniqueness, the wisdom of his rule. But his work brought pain to all the people who came close to him. He disturbed peace, prosperity, the strength of his empire. He violated the dignity, rights, and well-being of his subjects. He meddled insultingly in all matters: from religion to the family to the holy church. Can one love such a despot? No, never. Such a ruler is nothing but hateful.’

So what of Catherine, the woman whose perspective steers this novel? She was a survivor, that’s for sure. Cunning and smart in a way that belied her lack of education. If she had been less beautiful, she’d likely have been dead in a ditch by seventeen. Luck came her way on account of her looks, but it was her intelligence that ensured this luck was not wasted. Her life was far from easy though. Thirteen pregnancies, twelve with Peter, and only two daughters survived into adulthood. I can’t help but wonder though if all of the vodka drinking may have had a hand in this. Her uterus must have been fairly pickled.

‘Twelve times God had given me the chance to give Russia an heir. Twelve times I had failed.’

Catherine lived by dancing on the edge of a knife with Peter. He had already cast one wife aside, and she had actually birthed him a son – just one he happened to deem as weak and inadequate. So for Catherine, whose boys were all sadly either stillborn or died in infancy, her position was forever precarious. And yet, Peter was besotted with her. Her bravery superseded many of the men he was surrounded by and her wits on more than one occasion led to a situation saved for him. Her compassion operated as a temperance between Peter and his courtiers, even a buffer at times, as she was the only one who could calm his rages and soothe his ego. She manipulated him masterfully – seriously, the woman was a goddess. And yet, he still openly disrespected her, more and more as he got older. It was actually pretty repulsive to be honest, this man with symptomatic syphilis having open affairs with other women at court, including his own niece at one stage, while Catherine watched from the sidelines, pregnant again. I am astonished she did not contract syphilis herself and really can’t fathom why she didn’t. In the end, I championed her fate. No one was more deserving than her of becoming the next leader after Peter’s death. No one had earned it more through sheer grit, tears, and even blood. She gave birth thirteen times and mourned the loss of a child eleven times. Rode alongside Peter to war for years, mucking in and nursing the wounded. She endured fear and tyranny on a daily basis, witnessed atrocities that beggar belief, survived repeated rape, was sold by her own family, and was forced to kill in self-defence. The loyalty that was shown to her in the end was more than earned. I thought she was magnificent. And that revenge she took on the upstart that threatened her position as Peter’s wife? Gold. If you’re going to send someone a clear message, make it a worthwhile one and go full Catherine on them.

‘The generals kneel; countless times I have sat with them by the campfire, celebrating their victories and lamenting their defeats. I tended to their wounds at Poltava, and spooned thin soup into their bowls underneath the beating Persian sun. I was always there, for as long as they can remember. I protected them, their goods and their families, against Peter’s wrath. At his side, I had learnt what it took to rule Russia. This is the way it should be: Peter is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty Emperor and Tsar of All the Russias, has died, and not a moment too soon.’

This is no fairy-tale story of a rags to riches princess fulfilling her destiny. This is a brutal account of the birth of an empire made out of blood, sweat, and tears, its existence defying all possibility. It’s the story of a woman who, despite being born into serfdom, despite being sold, used, and discarded, despite being a woman in the first place, ended up still alive, stepping out of the shadow of a despot and reigning supreme, loved by her people and deserving of their honour. This novel is dense with war and politics, riddled with sex and debauchery, saturated with villainy, manipulations, and betrayal: just about everything you could ever want from historical fiction and then some.

Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy of Tsarina for review.
Profile Image for Sarah.
525 reviews28 followers
December 14, 2020
'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 historical fiction by Ellen Aplsten set in Russia during the rule of Peter the Great. The edition is actually a republication and was originally published in 2004 and it very much follows the style of historical fictions published in the early 2000s.

I don't think this book was really for me, I found it to be overly long and at times felt a bit repetitive. I think the most simplified description is a brutal and sadistic rags to riches tale(and this book certainly doesn't shy away from the darker parts of this history, but I do appreciate that is wasn't cleaned up and handled with kid gloves, because history is often dark and it shouldn't be glossed over. There are times when Catherine seems to really fade into the bakgroud and it seems like the book isn't really heading in a solid direction, getting lost in too many details and drowning in overly descriptive phrases.

I did find some of the book to be fascinating though and I learned quite a bit about this time in Russian history that I wasn't previously aware of. I feel like many historical fictions based in Russia focus on the fall of the Romanov family, so it was great to see this one focus on another period and the first women to rule Russia.

Forewarning though that if assult and violence are triggers for you, give this book a pass because each occur numerous times throughout the book.

I would like to thank NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for sharing an eARC of Tsarina with me. This is my honest review.
Profile Image for Dianne.
6,773 reviews573 followers
August 21, 2020
Born into poverty, one woman would rise from peasant to TSARINA and would hold the key to forever changing the landscape of Imperial Russia. Enter Ellen Alpsten’s world of eighteenth century Russia as war, political machinations, loyalty and the power of love and lust turn a pauper into an ambitious dynamo who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals.

Brilliant, richly detailed and atmospheric, this is a raw Cinderella story with grit. Spanning decades, we witness a young woman’s rise from washerwoman to consort to Peter the Great, sharing in the excesses of the times as Fate and Opportunity conspire to create a powerful personality for an era in upheaval.

Ellen Alpsten has done a remarkable job of bringing her characters and their actions to life, from drunken debauchery to lavish feasts to the brazen audacity of desiring to hold the power of life and death over a nation.

Entertaining, mesmerizing and thought-provoking, this tale of history fairly leaps off the pages as the drama builds and redoubles itself.

I received a complimentary ARC edition from St. Martin's Press! This is my honest and voluntary review.

Publisher: St. Martin's Press (November 10, 2020)
Publication Date: November 10, 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Print Length: 480 pages
Available from: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
For Reviews, Giveaways, Fabulous Book News, follow: http://tometender.blogspot.com
Profile Image for Sarah Mac.
1,099 reviews
April 17, 2021
Belatedly rounding this up to 5 stars, because I really enjoyed it as a whole, ranging from style (first person narration) to subject (an era of Russian history that’s rarely explored) to character (an unrepentantly bitchy heroine). If that sounds appealing to you, feel free to ignore the negative reviews & trust my opinion instead. ;) Just don’t expect a genteel frosted-glass historical in the vein of Penman or Seton. This is one of those modern soapy historicals—a hybrid lit-fic & bodice-shredding adventure, complete with sex, violence, rape, WTFery, & general ickiness re: the less beautiful details of everyday life in a less-than-ideal past. Catherine survives a lot of shit, & some of her decisions are entirely mercenary. But I liked her, even though she could be somewhat cold-hearted, & found her sharper, edgier personality refreshing compared to the plethora of virtuous Mary Sues in women-centric historicals.

My biggest complaint is that it ends without any climax. The narrative cuts off just as Catherine achieves a major milestone, then...finis. It also desperately needed a Dramatis Personae page, as there’s a small army of characters that appear & disappear during Catherine’s tale.

But still. 5 stars & a place on my keeper shelf. ^__^
Profile Image for Lucia Nieto Navarro .
807 reviews182 followers
April 30, 2021

La Zarina es un libro de ficción histórica, una novela de la que he aprendido muchísimo, ya que de esta época he leido bastante poco y menos aún de Rusia.
La historia comienza con la muerte de Pedro el Grande, puesto que este no tiene ningún heredero varón, muere sin decir quien será su sucesor al trono. Tras esto, comienza la historia, y nos cuenta las horas posteriores de su muerte, horas en las que nuestra Zarina, nos cuenta en primera persona su vida, desde su nacimiento, en una familia pobre hasta el momento en el que se encuentra con Pedro, y a partir de ahí su vida con él.
Nuestra Zarina, Catherine Alexeyvana, que antes se llamo Marta, fue la segunda esposa de Pedro el Grande, y nació pobre, en un pueblo humilde, sin saber leer ni escribir pero que llego a ser la primera mujer que gobernó Rusia.
Todos los personajes que rodean a la Zarina, son imprescindibles en la historia, ya que cada uno tiene su función, todos están muy bien construidos, y la autora hace que empatices con la mayoría de ellos, ya sea cogiéndoles cariño u odiándolos.
Un personaje, valiente, y fuerte, ya que en una época donde la mujer no valía nada, llega a ser lo que fue, un personaje de superación, con mucha paciencia, inteligente, madre fuerte, y luchadora por lo que quiere. Se ha convertido en un personaje a seguir y ha sido desde el principio mi favorita.
Ademas de la trama principal, hay muchas historias, como serán las intrigas del palacio, las infidelidades, la pasión, la crudeza en los castigos,…
Se nota el trabajo de documentación de la autora, muy completo tanto en la ambientación como en los muchos términos rusos que se utilizan y que se entienden perfectamente.
Añadir que la ambientación me ha gustado mucho, ya que no solo te describe San Petersburgo, sino también otros países que van recorriendo, así como sus palacios, sus castillos, etc…
Un libro que a pesar de sus 600 paginas en cuento lo coges no lo puedes soltar, muy recomendable para los amantes de la novela histórica que quieran aprender sobre esta época.
Profile Image for Kate Baxter.
579 reviews38 followers
October 7, 2020
This story is as epic as a Russian novel; fraught with incredible loss, betrayal, subterfuge, and despair. Yet it also speaks of opulence, the excesses of the rich and powerful and how one safely navigates such a world as a changing Russia of the 18th century. It is a rags to riches story of a plucky young girl, whose cleverness, sensuality, quick wit and tender heart deliver her from a lowly life of servitude to the open arms of the ruler of all the Russias - Tsar Peter the Great. She is the beautiful Catherine Alexeyevna, second wife of Peter the Great and first Empress of all the Russias. This is the first book to tell her story.

Author Ellen Alpsten has crafted an incredible story of Herculean proportions about a low-born girl who rises to greatness. She cleverly provides a purely fictional yet believable account of the early years of this legendary woman, as the historic record is silent. Relying on the available historical records of the Romanov court, Alpsten weaves a rich and epic story about this strong, courageous and devoted woman. In one stroke, she captures the beauty of the Russian landscape as well as the soul of the Russian people with her painterly writing style. In another, she captures the shear brutality of a country at continuous war - sometimes on all fronts - including the personal ones within the Kremlin's walls.

Trigger warning: Rape scenes, scenes from the boudoir and bacchanalia as well as those of horrific brutality are quite graphic. This may all be closer to the truth than one would hope.

Regardless, the book was interesting and most informative regarding Russia's history and this amazing woman's place within it.

I am grateful to St. Martin's Press for having provided a complimentary uncorrected digital galley of this book through NetGalley. Their generosity, however, has not influenced this review - the words of which are mine alone.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,392 reviews583 followers
January 26, 2021
No rating. Not for me. Too melodramatic effusive and touched in some quirky way authoritative with torture and physical atrocity every tenth paragraph. Got to page 20. Ewwee!

Writing flow is telling, telling of 1st person heart thumping. Prose impossible to spend any more time. I won't enjoy this and it holds nothing towards my interest. Lover's chopped head in a jar as a dresser punishment adornment? No, not a fan.
Profile Image for Eva Müller.
Author 1 book73 followers
November 14, 2021
The current Amazon title of this book is not Tsarina but Tsarina: ‘Makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme’ - Daisy Goodwin. Apart from being cringy, it also reminded me that A Song of Ice and Fire did many things but it has at least never had graphic on-page descriptions of POV characters getting raped. The books at least. The show had no such qualms. And neither has Tsarina. Marta/Catherine gets raped multiple times. She also witnesses rapes and eventually orders the rape of another character (and watches). In case you hadn’t guessed: this book is Dark And Gritty. But there’s not only rape, there’s also sex...Katharina has sex and watches other people have sex. Occasionally the sex is fairly plain and vanilla but more often it’s something like...orgies involving lesbian incest sex because this book is Dark And Edgy. In between, there are some wars that are described with as much loving detail as only an author who absolutely does not care about this kind of stuff and wants to go back to writing edgy sex could. Which would be slightly excusable if the sex scenes didn’t look like this:

Peter whooped and grabbed the man’s hips, spurring him on. “Devier, you rascal. Do I have to teach you everything? Don’t they even know how to fuck in your country? Rhythm, man!” Rasia Menshikova covered her face in shame when Peter fondled her tiny breasts, pushing them to the right and then left. “Starboard! Larboard! All hands on deck,” he shouted.

At least there’s also lovingly described torture and execution (because this book is Dark And Edgy) that give a break from sex scenes involving naval terminology.

What else?
- Obergshathalter is not a German word
- матка/matka is a Russian word but not the one the author thinks it is
- Catherine magically gains the ability to read so she can burn a letter from Peter in a fittingly theatralic manner (so that the right words burn first) and then forgets it again
- I am aware that Russian-Orthodox people cross themselves with three fingers, some people might not but they will probably catch it after...idk the third time it’s brought up. There’s no need to mention the three fingers every time someone crosses themself (yes...this was genuinely mentioned so many times that I got as annoyed by it as by the bad sex scenes)

I could go on but it would just be several more points followed by (because this book is Dark And Gritty you see) and I have better things to do.
Profile Image for The Sassy Bookworm.
3,464 reviews2,358 followers
November 22, 2020
I haven't been a huge historical fiction fan in a while, but this one caught my eye, so I gave it a chance. And I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. It's a fairly long book, but held my interest throughout.
Profile Image for Katelynne.
812 reviews11 followers
November 16, 2020
What an epic tale about a historical figure I knew nothing about. I was totally engrossed. My thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for giving me a copy in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Amy.
843 reviews17 followers
October 29, 2020
Fans of Russian literature will fall in love with Ellen Alpsten's 'Tsarina.' Reminiscent of Robert K. Massie's 'Nicholas and Alexandra.' 'the plot differs with a fiercely determined protagonist as she transitions from serf to Empress Catherine the Great. Although Alpsten's novel is penned in historical fiction, the author shares a love of Russian history with her readers.

Marta grew up poor but well-loved until a fateful swim changed her life. Forced to tread water, she often felt like she was swimming without clear direction. Striving to stay alive, Marta became a tour de force aligning with powerful leaders while speaking her mind.

During a time period where women were seen as pawns in a chess games, Marta threw down the gauntlet embracing her royal circumstances by delivering a 'check mate.' Will the country embrace a female leader or Catherine's ruling remain without a throne?

Thank you to #NetGalley and the publisher for the early read in exchange for an honest review. There were graphic scenes throughout the book yet I was swept away by the story. I don't condone all of Catherine's actions but I was rooting for her. In order to survive, she took charge of her fate.

Reading the novel during this tumultuous time, Catherine's steely determination will resonate with readers. Living through the pandemic and pending election, we need to control our destinies.
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