Thursday, September 17, 2020

Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten
St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: November 10th, 2020
Hardcover. 496 pages

About Tsarina:

"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?"

I received an ARC of Tsarina closer to the beginning of this year (you know, that beautiful time known as the "Before") and I decided to save it to read closer to publication, so this review has been a long time coming! While putting together this review post, I also discovered that the publication date has apparently been pushed back from October to November, so this is now an extra early review, but we're just going with it. 

Before diving into this review, I do want to add a content warning for explicit sexual encounters, rape, and other types of violence (I say "types" because apparently Peter the Great is very, uh, creative in how he occasionally punishes and/or kills people).

Tsarina is an ambitious story that follows Marta/Catherine Alexeyevna (I will refer to her as Catherine in this review for sake of matching the synopsis), second wife of Peter the Great, from her youth up to the end of her life--which was a lot of content to cover. I'll admit that I initially thought that this book was going to follow her life mostly once she was involved with Peter the Great in the upper realms of society, so I was surprised by how much time was spent on her youth and growing up. I'm glad we got to see what her life was like growing up (with fictional liberties taken, of course) and I think it really helped to put her actions from later events in the story into better perspective.

It is through a series of both misfortunes and luck that eventually lead to Catherine's relationship with Peter the Great that culminated in her becoming empress briefly after his death. I was in turns shocked, excited, XX, and so many more emotions while reading about her journey from poverty to being, quite literally, associated with one of the most powerful people in Russia at the time. Accompanying Catherine on this journey was a whirlwind of emotions and experiences and I really enjoyed getting to know the entire cast of characters that were a part of Catherine's journey. Catherine herself remained a rather impressive figure as she never really gave up or stopped trying to do better for herself. She is unexpectedly ambitious and has a sharp tongue that she utilized excellently and is part of what I think allowed her to make it to such heights in this story.  I was constantly surprised by how stubborn Catherine could be and how much that often seemed to work out for her in the end--her power-without-having-power was truly an enjoyable sight.

Alpsten brought the world of 18th century Russia to life in the most exquisite ways, from vivid descriptions of the lands and cities themselves to the exploration of different classes and levels of society to the strategic and often complex military and political strategizing that occurred. I know that this is historical fiction, but it is so apparent that Alpsten did immense research in order to create such a realized and authentic world and story.

Despite the fact that this is a longer book at nearly 500 pages, I still felt as though there wasn't enough time to fit in everything. At the same time, however, there were certain periods of time in Catherine's life that I felt dragged on a bit too long, whereas others were brushed over. Catherine underwent twelve pregnancies throughout her life and many of the later ones with Peter the Great seemed to be glossed over a bit, simple interspersed amidst all of the other chaotic political events occurring at the same time. In a way, this probably matches the chaos of what it was really like at that time for Catherine, but it was significant moments like these that I felt could have been incorporated in slightly better and smoother ways. Alpsten was thorough in including as much detail and major events as possible, which I appreciate, but it was done in a way that felt rushed and not as entertaining to read as it could have been.

Overall, I've given Tsarina 3.75 stars! If you like historical fiction, Russian-focused books, or simply following a remarkable female protagonist on her journey from poverty to royalty, then this is absolutely a book I'd recommend.

*I received a copy of Tsarina in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating of the novel.*


  1. Thanks for this detailed review! I've been looking forward to this one, since I haven't read much about Catherine's life, or what life was like in Russia at the time.

  2. The setting of this book sounds so fantastic!