Primary Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Published: November 10th 2020 by St. Martin’s Press (first published 2002)
Page count: 467 (print length)
My Format: eBook via NetGalley
Pacing: Starts good, but eventually drags
Do I Recommend: Maybe
Commission Link (U.S.): Buy Tsarina
My rating: ★★★☆☆
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 love historical fiction, particularly when it is based on a real person. I also enjoy reading Russian history and I have read fiction and non-fiction about Peter the Great, Tzar Nicholas II and family, Rasputin, and Catherine the Great. So, a book about Peter the Great’s second wife definitely piqued my interest. Here are my pros and cons for Tsarina:
- I enjoyed the history. Even though this is fiction, there are real historical events in the story, and I enjoyed learning more about this time period. Although the first part of Catherine’s life is not well-documented, I thought the author did a good job of creating a beginning for her by creating plausible scenarios where there were gaps. I actually enjoyed the first part of the book depicting her life because it felt more like it was about her, rather than just about Catherine as the wife of Peter the Great.
- I think the author did a good job of capturing the atmosphere of late 17th/early 18th century Russia, particularly regarding how women and serfs were treated and what was expected of them. The levels of poverty and the violence women were subjected to was disturbing to say the least.
- Here is a note I took while reading this book: “Rape, murder, rape, orgy, sex, sex, sex, incest, violence, rape, pregnancy, death, pregnancy, death, pregnancy, death, pregnancy….”. Honestly, it felt like there was no story after a while and it was just rape, sex, violence, babies, and death nonstop. I lost almost all interest in the book after Catherine met Peter for the first time. I almost did not finish reading it.
- The writing was strange to me. Sometimes if felt very verbose and formal and other times the words flowed more easily and the story was easier to read. I honestly wondered if there were two separate authors writing different parts of the book because the style differences were very noticeable.
- There were also some weird similes in the book that really stood out to me. For example “…the sun was shining, dull as a copper coin”. Shining dull? And “… my life changed course, like the weathervane on the monastery roof spinning in the first blast of a sudden storm.” A spinning weathervane is directionless! I know these are nitpicks, and there are more like this in the book, but these types of things really stood out to me as not only strange, but often verbose and unnecessary.
- The book was way too long.
I disliked this book mainly because it seemed to be extremely focused on sex, manipulation, and violence. I am very aware that history is rife with sex, manipulation, and violence; however, this book included it so much that it started to feel a bit gratuitous. I wanted more history and less focus on everything else.
I’m not sure if the intention of the novel was to show the reader how great Catherine was, or to show how much of an opportunist she was. The woman definitely wasn’t a saint and she liberally used the only weapon in her arsenal (sex) to get what she wanted/needed in life. One could debate all day long whether what she did was right or wrong. One could also argue that she had no choice in her actions unless she wanted to continue to live her life as a serf. Perhaps it was simply survival to do what she did, perhaps it was the hunger for power she knew was within her grasp, or perhaps it was something else entirely. Either way, the book at least made me think about life at that time and what it would be like to a woman then. For that reason, I bumped my original rating of 2 stars to 3 stars.
Thank you NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an ebook, which I have reviewed honestly and voluntarily.
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