As literary genres go, historical fiction was my first love. This one is up there with the best.
Even in my early school days, I was in trouble with my history teacher for questioning the dry facts that he presented to us. He happened to also be our current affairs teacher and, in those classes, he hammered home that we should verify and validate and cross-check the sources. When it came to history lessons, we were expected to believe everything that the historians had written without question. When I pointed out the conflict, his cane swished painfully across my hands or backside.
My view was that the historical fiction that I read COULD be very close to the truth and it certainly brought history to life much more than his crusty books. Again, the cane was his answer.
I haven’t changed!
Amongst my favourites are Rosemary Sutcliff, Nigel Tranter, John Prebble, Conn Iggulden and George MacDonald Fraser.
Ellen Alpsten, with her debut novel is definitely added to my list.
Tsarina is narrated in the voice of an illiterate peasant girl from the village of Livonia in what is now Latvia. She is sold into servitude by her father and goes through periods of terrible abuse throughout her lifetime, even after she has found the favour of the Tsar, Peter the Great. He renames her, Catherine Alexeyevna. He marries her and she becomes the Tsarina.
There are many interesting characters in this book, not least the great Russian General Shermetev who gives her advice and guidance that steers her through the rest of her precarious life. Her calculated cunning, combined with huge determination to be her own woman and a great deal of luck see her through many very dangerous situation.
She soon realises who she can trust and who she cannot and that it is often better to be ruthless in your dealings with those around you than to fall the victim of their ruthlessness. Everyone in that world, in that time, is trampling on those around them to gain their own advantage. Woe betide those who dare to cross either the Tsar or the Tsarina.
The time-linear narrative is occasionally interrupted with a flash forward into the time around the death of Tsar Peter. As you read, you can feel Catherine’s fear as she comes to terms with the fate that could befall her if she fails to gain the support of those who will hold her up as Empress of Russia.
I really enjoyed riding the emotional roller-coaster with Marta/Catherine as she told me her life story. This is tremendous historical fiction and I recommend it to all and I have no hesitation in awarding it five well-deserved stars.