Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten: Fast-paced, brimming with atmosphere, menace, intrigue and brutality - book review -

The illegitimate daughter of a peasant family in a backwater Baltic village, Marta Skowrońska was a serf who rose to become Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, and the reformer empress who turned the traditionalist Tsardom of Russia into a modern Western empire.

Wednesday, 3rd June 2020, 12:30 pm
Tsarina
Tsarina

There are few who have not heard tales of Catherine the Great of Russia, a central figure of the Enlightenment, and the dangerously unstable Alexandra, wife of the last doomed Tsar, Nicholas II… but there was another, earlier tsarina whose story is just as remarkable.

The illegitimate daughter of a peasant family in a backwater Baltic village, Marta Skowrońska was a serf who rose to become Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, and the reformer empress who turned the traditionalist Tsardom of Russia into a modern Western empire.

Drawing on real people and events, and the few sketchy details that exist of Marta’s early years, debut novelist Ellen Alpsten – who first dreamt of writing Marta’s story when she was only thirteen – employs her heart, soul, imagination, and a wealth of painstaking research to bring to spectacular life one of history’s forgotten but most powerful women.

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And what a big, intoxicating and enthralling adventure it is as we travel through fascinating timelines of 18th century European history, get up close and (very!) personal with a cast of larger-than-life characters – each portrayed with pinpoint precision – and sweep across the vast landscapes of imperial Russia.

Born to an unmarried mother in a shabby hut in a village in the vast plains of Swedish Livonia, one of the Baltic territories under the rule of Stockholm, young Marta Skowrońska’s chances of success in life are extremely low.

Marta’s mother dies in childbirth and she grows up with the family of her father and his wife but at the age of fifteen, after another harsh winter, the strikingly beautiful girl is sold as a maidservant to a merchant from the town of Walk.

But Vassily Petrov is a violent brute who tortures his servants and Marta only survives death herself by committing a crime that forces her to go on the run to Marienburg where she finds sanctuary with a kind pastor and his family.

A world away, Russia’s young ruler, Tsar Peter I, is passionate and iron-willed with a love for all things Western and has an ambition to be a leading political player and transform the tradition-bound Tsardom of Russia into a modern global power.

As he sets out to expand his empire, countless lives are lost in the process and many fall prey to his Great Northern War. And when his army lays siege to Marienburg, Marta is rescued from a group of marauding Russian soldiers by their Field Marshall Boris Sheremetev.

The seasoned officer takes a shine to the feisty young Marta and finds her work in the battle camp but she catches the eye of another man, the powerful Alexander Menshikov, who is the oldest and most loyal friend of the tsar.

And it’s one night at a raucous celebration that she encounters the towering seven-feet-tall Tsar Peter who – secretly vulnerable and needy – falls under the spell of the compassionate, forthright girl with green eyes and hair ‘as black as a raven’s wing.’

Relying on her wits and her formidable courage, and fuelled by ambition, desire and the sheer will to live, Marta will become his tsarina, the mother of twelve children, and, eventually, Catherine I of Russia.

But her rise to the top is paved with danger in a court full of Russians… those strange, anomalous people ‘forever caught between a zest for life and seeking penance for their sins; filled with deep religious belief yet capable of heathen violence… swaying between hair-raising cruelty and deep, tearful regret.’

How long can she survive the plotting of Peter’s court, and more importantly, Peter himself?

Tsarina is epic in every sense of the word… an exhilarating, sexy, sprawling, rags-to-riches odyssey which follows an illiterate but canny teenager from lowly washerwoman through death, war and destruction to the very centre of the notoriously decadent and opulent Russian court where violence, scheming and debauchery are part of everyday life.

It’s a place where staggering wealth, luxury, extravagance and the excesses of the inhabitants of the royal palaces play out against the grinding poverty of the serfs and peasants whose life-sapping struggles are all too familiar to the young tsarina.

Part love story between the resourceful Catherine and her restless, volatile giant of a husband, and part gripping account of one ambitious and courageous woman’s battle to survive the machinations of powerful men through her own wit and wiles, and become a ruler in her own right, Alpsten’s magnificent debut proves to be a wild, ferocious and wonderful journey packed with colourful characters and rich period detail.

Fast-paced, brimming with atmosphere, menace, intrigue and brutality, this is destined to be one 2020’s most exciting and sumptuous historical novels… and puts Alpsten firmly on the reading map.

(Bloomsbury, hardback, £16.99)