We are, as we’ve said before, partial to a good piece of historical fiction and Ellen Alpsten’s debut novel, Tsarina, is a veritable beast of a book.

Told in the first person, it charts the rise of Catherine I, second wife of Peter the Great, from her humble beginnings as peasant girl Marta Skowronska to her position as the most powerful woman in Russia.

It’s a great story – courageous young girl beats the odds, surviving poverty, slavery, abuse. war, to capture the attention of the Tsar and become his empress-consort, a feat achieved through grit, intelligence, wit and sheer bravado. All that and it’s a tale based on fact.

Alpsten reimagines the landscape of early eighteenth-century Russia well: the extreme poverty of the masses contrasted with the wealth and excesses of the Russian elite, the brutality of the battlefield and the political machinations and jealousies of the Tsar’s court all evocatively realised.

It’s a big book, at almost 500 pages, yet Alpsten packs it with detail, action, violence and sex. There’s a lot of sex and sexual violence, illustrating the debauchery and excesses of Peter the Great’s court. And, in a world in which women were viewed as little more than chattels, to be bought, sold, exchanged, discarded, used for whatever purpose men wanted, Catherine I’s story, her rise to become empress of Russia, is all the more remarkable.

A page-turner, Tsarina comes recommended.


Ellen Alpsten | Tsarina | Bloomsbury | hardback | 14 May 2020 | £14.99

Available in other editions – ebook and audio

Please support independent bookshops and libraries


Acknowledgements: This review is published as part of the virtual book tour. Many thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising it and to the publisher for supplying a review copy. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Please check out the other reviews on this tour.

See also: Charlie Mackesy and the importance of touch‘; ‘Damian Barr’s slice of South Africa’;Prospect beautiful, Derek Jarman’s cottage‘; ‘Chris Whitaker’s small-town America’; ‘Nora Roberts’ Sanctuary: an Old Familiar’; Carver’s Nothing Important Happened Today’; By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Remembered‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

This review is © 2020 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Any images are used for promotional purposes only. If we have unintentionally breached your copyright, please contact us and we will take the image down immediately. Thank you so much.

Tags : , , , , , , , , ,