“Tsarina” by Ellen Alpsten

Thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review. 

I really enjoy Russian fiction, as in books written by Russian authors but when I wracked my brain, I couldn’t think of a single Russian historical fiction book I have read. So, time to remedy that with this book.

So, the cover gives off a bit of a bodice ripper vibe which would probably have made me scroll past it if I had not checked the publisher. Bloomsbury are usually pretty discerning however, so I decided to give it a spin.

This tale concerns Marta, a peasant girl who would eventually rise to become Peter the Great’s second wife. This isn’t a spoiler because a) she was a real person and b) the book makes it clear from the beginning that she is Tsarina and c) the title…

The tagline on NetGalley described this book as the “extraordinary rags-to-riches tale of the most powerful woman history ever forgot” and I think that is pretty apt as I’d never heard of her. 

The story itself is quite interesting although the narrative starts to flag somewhat once Marta rises to the dizzying heights of royalty. The brutality of 17th century Russia was well captured, and the author had clearly done her research. 

So, what didn’t I like?

Physical descriptions are always really tricky when books are based on real people. We’re constantly told about what a stone cold babe Marta is with men falling over in a stupor whenever she walks by. Contemporary portraits do not suggest this to be the case and the same goes for some of the other women mentioned. A woman can be interesting without having to be stunningly beautiful. Just saying.

Also, I really am no prude and usually don’t give trigger warnings in my review as I tend not to be offended by much but this book has incredibly detailed and graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

There is also a LOT of sex scenes, some bordering on vulgarity. Most notable of which is an incestuous lesbian sex scene which was excruciatingly uncomfortable to read.

I enjoyed this book at first but after a while I honestly started to feel a bit stressed reading it. It was all just a bit too much for me.

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