The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten: Wildly entertaining, ferociously exciting, and packed with scandal, dark deeds and deadly desires - book review -
Russia in the 18th century is a place of the deepest divisions
Extraordinary wealth jostles with abject poverty, freedom is limited to a chosen few, and one man holds power through what he believes is a God-given, ‘insoluble bond’ with his people.
So being born a daughter to the mighty Tsar Peter the Great would seem to be the golden ticket to a lifetime of luxury, but a dark prophecy awaits Tsarevna Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova which will see her life hang by a thread.
After her enthralling debut novel, Tsarina, which imagined the remarkable story of Catherine I – the peasant girl who became the reformer empress and turned Russia into a modern Western empire – Ellen Alpsten turns her eagle eye on Catherine’s beautiful but headstrong daughter Elizabeth.
And this second book featuring the turbulent lives of the mighty Romanovs brings us the same intoxicating mix of history, cruelty, soaring passions, a larger-than-life cast of characters, and a breathtaking journey across the opulent palaces and vast landscapes of imperial Russia.
Born in 1709 into the House of Romanov to the all-powerful Peter the Great and his wife, Catherine, a former serf, beautiful but headstrong Elizabeth is the world’s loveliest Princess and the envy of the Russian empire.
Insulated by luxury and spoiled by her father who plans for her to marry King Louis XV of France and rule in Versailles, Elizabeth is seemingly a woman free from the burden of statecraft and able to pursue her passions.
The only shadows over Elizabeth’s privileged life are her mother’s sorrow as she loses baby after baby in a desperate bid to produce a son and heir, and a Delphic prophecy delivered by a woodland creature who predicts her fate is inexorably entwined with Russia and warns that her ‘lightest load’ will be her ‘greatest burden.’
Soon the girl’s life is turned upside down. Her restless, volatile father suddenly dies, her only brother Alexey was executed by his father some years ago, and her mother Catherine takes the throne of Russia.
And when her mother also dies, Russia is torn apart, masks fall, and friends become foes in the dangerous atmosphere of the court where ‘every blessing can be a curse’ because she is the Tsar’s daughter.
By the time she reaches her twenties, Elizabeth is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. Even loving her becomes a crime that warrants cruel torture and capital punishment. But as times change again like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth… she must choose whether to take up her role as Russia’s ruler, and decide what she is willing to do for her country, and for love.
The Tsarina’s Daughter proves to be another epic odyssey… a big, sexy, scintillating read brimming over with that distinctive brand of Tsarist Russian politics, court intrigue, voluptuous excess, venomous jealousies, and bone-crunching brutality.
Like a rose among the thorns, young Elizabeth – with a natural warmth, kindness and outspokenness that has no room to flourish in the ruthless court – must learn to curb her tongue because, as her sister warns, ‘your heart is as big as your mouth.’
It’s just the start of her captivating life journey… from naïve, often reckless girl to brave, wily woman of the world who must not only survive the violent slings and arrows of her outrageous male-dominated Russian court, but also manipulate, outwit and ruthlessly defeat the enemies who would see her brought down.
Standing in the boots of her mercurial, seven-foot colossus father Peter the Great is a tall order for Elizabeth, particularly as her life is haunted by the prophecy of the woodland hag, but she is buoyed by the one great love of her life and never gives up the fight to claim the throne.
Fact and fiction play out to perfection as Alpsten dishes up an irresistible feast of staggering wealth, chilling violence, terrible suffering, and heart-soaring passion with characters from all walks of life stepping into Elizabeth’s orbit.
Wildly entertaining, ferociously exciting, and packed with scandal, dark deeds, deadly desires, and a spine-tingling slice of supernatural, The Tsarina’s Daughter is a thrilling read for all historical novel fans.
(Bloomsbury, hardback, £16.99)