Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten
Published : 14th May 2020
Publisher : Bloomsbury Publishing
Format : Kindle, Audio, Hardback
Genre : Historical Fiction
Lover. Murderer. Mother. Meet TSARINA, the most powerful woman history ever forgot. Spring 1699: Illegitimate, destitute and strikingly beautiful, Marta has survived the brutal Russian winter in her remote Baltic village. Sold by her family into household labour at the age of fifteen, Marta survives by committing a crime that will force her to go on the run.
A world away, Russia's young ruler, Tsar Peter I, passionate and iron-willed, has a vision for transforming the traditionalist Tsardom of Russia into a modern, Western empire. Countless lives will be lost in the process.
Falling prey to the Great Northern War, Marta cheats death at every turn, finding work as a washerwoman at a battle camp. One night at a celebration, she encounters Peter the Great. Relying on her wits and her formidable courage, and fuelled by ambition, desire and the sheer will to live, Marta will become Catherine I of Russia.
But her rise to the top is ridden with peril; how long will she survive the machinations of Peter's court, and more importantly, Peter himself?
He is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty Tsar of all the Russia's, has died - and just in time.
This is an extremely powerful story about an amazing woman and her fascinating surreal life. I was utterly enthralled for the entire novel which says something as this is a big book.
This story initially opens at Peters death bed in 1725, then you are taken back to 1699 to start the story at the beginning, every now and then you have the odd chapter dotted about that takes you back to the present, giving you snippets of what is happening but never enough to work out what is happening.
It takes you through childhood to death, first as Marta and then as Catherine, the woman who is to stand beside the ruler of all The Russias, Peter The Great.
Marta was born into poverty, she was sold by her stepmother to an abhorrent man who beat and raped her for the best part of her time in his household, she then had a brief respite and lived happily for a couple of years in a small town where she lived safely as a maid in a pastors family, The Glucks treated her very well and even secured her a marriage to a kind man but soon enough Peter The Great, Tsar of all The Russias declares was and Marta ends up being a prisoner of war. Because of her strong will, refusal to show fear and beauty Martas life as a prisoner was not nearly as bad as it could have been. She ends up in the household of one of the Tsars closest friends and befriends his mistress Daria, this is where she learns how to play these powerful men to her advantage and Daria teaches her a great deal of the inner workings of Russian politics and the best way to conduct herself to get what she wants.
Even though Marta had an immensely hard life she survived everything that was thrown at her and was an amazingly strong willed woman. She survives and excels at blending at the soldier camp, being born to poverty, Martha was never meant to rise any higher then her birth decreed but whilst she was learning and surviving in the camp she comes across Peter and it is her bravery that makes him notice her. It isn't long before she becomes the tsar’s consort and eventually Tsarina, the woman always by his side who ends up Empress of Russia.
Peter lavishes Marta with gifts and attention in those first weeks they were together but he was known for being a highly promiscuous man and even though she was pregnant many times she was always living in fear of who his latest conquest was and if she would bear him a son and heir before she could. Despite this Peter always has Marta in his heart and she had twelve pregnancies over their life together. Marta learnt from his previous wives mistakes and never showed Peter fear, never nagged him or appeared jealous. Even when he was at his most angry she would stand firm and he would soften. This is what leads him to believe she is strong enough to stand and rule by his side.
Marta, now Catherine devotes her whole life to Peter even though he was a despicable tyrant to his people. Forced slavery to work his will, brutal unnecessary punishments and a terrible temper all in the name of making Russia great, but all this helps her to gain allies and ease punishments for his closest to him by talking him down and persuading him to let things go. She knew people in power would always see her as a washer woman above her station so she had to stand tall and be an ear to those who needed it when Peter would not. Sometimes this doesn't always go to plan but Catherine always manages to bring him round in the end, although seeing all the things that Peter has done over the years, the horrors in which he has inflicted to this who are even closest to him and the fact that he strays more as she is told not to bear anymore children she finds her heart briefly straying to another younger man, who gives her his undivided attention. This she knows is extremely dangerous but she can't help herself...
That moment, I split in half. One part of me stayed at Peters side, as his faithful wife despite all the hateful events of recent months. This woman would always belong to him and love him for their happy memories. She breathed the same air as he did and shared his bed he were still to ask it. She shone in the brightness of his light so that no one else dared to approach her; no one heard the hollowness of her heartbeat.
The other woman, though, broke free from the facade that Peter and I so carefully maintained and retreated quietly within. Peter would not get hold of her, no, never again, for she settled silently in the depths of my soul. She drifted there like a boat without a rudder, lost on the stream of my life, until one day another mans love moored her in a last harbour, a place so full of beauty and belief, passion and peace, she could never have imagined it. One day.
This book does not shy away from description of any event. Rape, murder, torture to name a few are throughout this whole story, but that was what it was like back then and im glad the author did not shy away from that, but at the heart of it the story tells you of an extremely beautiful woman who survives everything that is thrown at her and ends up falling in love with the highest man in power, and despite everything, his temper and his women, loves him and keeps him guessing until the day he dies.
Why I Loved It
This was such a fascinating novel. I was totally swept away in the time of Russia in the 1700s and found that the detail in which this story was written really captivated the setting and I found I could see it all before me as I read, even though there was some seriously hard to read scenes.
After reading I had to google the images of Catherine and Peter to see if they looked anything like I had believed they did in my mind throughout the story.
This is historical fiction at its best. Any book that makes you feel like you are drawn in to the era you are reading is a book extremely well wrote.
I learned so much from just reading the pages in this one that I found a fascination for a time I never knew I was interested in.
Brutal, gripping and extremely intense. This one made me book pine for it for days after I had finished it and found myself jealous of anyone who gets to read it anew for the first time.
This is an outstanding debut.
Meet the author
Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, before attending L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. Whilst studying for her Msc in PPE she won the Grande École short story competition with her novella Meeting Mr. Gandhi and was encouraged to continue writing.
Upon graduating, she worked as a producer and presenter for Bloomberg TV in London. She contributes to international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint and Conde Nast Traveller. Tsarina is her first novel. She lives in London with her husband and three children.
Connect with Ellen
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