"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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Palace intrigue, military strategy, and romantic entanglements. Ellen Alpsten’s propulsive debut novel tells the improbable true story of Catherine I, who rose from abject poverty to become the ruler of Russia following the death of her husband, Peter the Great. In vivid, occasionally graphic prose, Alpsten portrays the couple’s tumultuous and passionate marriage—as well as Catherine’s ascent to a life of unimaginable luxury and her skillful navigation of the dangerous politics of the royal court. Tsarina is racy and full of surprises. It offers us a front seat to a powerful woman’s unforgettable adventure through the bedchambers and battlefields of a swiftly changing Russia.
Alpsten's overlong but ultimately rewarding debut chronicles the life of the first woman to rule Imperial Russia. In 1725, Peter the Great dies without a male heir old enough to rule, and his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, schemes for a place in the succession. Alpsten flashes back to Catherine's past, beginning with her birth as a peasant in 1684 and the poverty and abuse she suffers until her beauty catches the eye of Alexander Menshikov, the czar's closest friend, when Russia's wars with Sweden brings its army to her home near the Baltic Sea. Peter is drawn to her sexuality and fearlessness and takes her as a mistress. None of her 12 pregnancies with him result in a male heir, but her shrewdness helps cement her relationship with the czar, who marries her in 1712 and crowns her czarina in 1724. Catherine bonds with Menshikov and others as a way to cope with Peter's philandering and cruelty, even as his vision transforms a once-hidebound nation with a series of modernizing reforms. Though the prose can be clumsy and the time spent on Catherine's early years feels superfluous, Alpsten shines once she puts Catherine in Peter's orbit. Lovers of Russian history, strong women protagonists, and sweeping historicals will savor this vivid portrait.