“The Romanovs seem cursed,” says one of the younger characters, himself also doomed to not rise to complete power over Russia.
Alpsten has already written ‘Tsarina’ in which we follow the story of how a lowly washer woman Marta has caught the attention of none other than Peter the Great, and not only becomes Catherine I of Russia, but the mother of Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova.
It is the beginning decades of the 1700s and Tsar Peter had a vision for transforming Russia into a modern Western empire, but in this second part of the historical fiction trilogy following the House of the Romanovs Peter is dead. Tsarevna Elizabeth (Lizenka as she is known in the family), is the world’s loveliest Princess, insulated by luxury and free from the burdens of any power. She can pursue her own needs and passions, including sometimes unsuitable men to the Court and a liking for keeping pet monkeys it seems!
Alongside her sister Anoushka, the two sisters disobey servants and wander into the local Golosov Ravine, where like Macbeth they come upon spirits predicting their future lives. This surreal moment is backed to give credence to Elizabeth’s struggles and challenges, but also as a pagan reminder against the spiritual power of the orthodox religion also controlling the throne. There is guilt over the curse but also some hope that it will turn to truth.
When her mother dies, Russia is torn apart by the struggles of politicians and the military wanting to gain power and tear away the rights of the Romanovs. Friends become foes to Elizabeth and her idyllic world is turned on its head. Penniless and powerless, she becomes the fulcrum at the balance of the past and future fate of Russia.
There are sweeping snow scenes with sleds and furs. Wild terrains of vast lands from Siberia (where enemies are sent into exile) alongside the golden domes of Russia’s main cities of Russia and St Petersburg with their wealth and often corrupt greed. The author has a superb style and entirely captures the place and the people of Russia at this time. We can glory in the rich trappings and clothes of power and also feel for the peasants whose love and devotion to whom they regard as the real Romanov ruler will stand for much for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is a plucky princess. She has obstructions on all sides but loyalty and her love of her country and its people will have to see her through the traumas and heartbreak. She has lovers from soldiers to singers and we cry for her losses in love. There are some great characters through her life and the pages including the dwarf court jester D’Acosta, Illinchaya the childhood nurse of both sisters and Lestocq, French aristocrat and physician – much needed in the time of death and diseases such as smallpox. There are definite baddies – intent on destroying the dynasty and Elizabeth needs either to escape or engage and fight for her family.
I loved it as a personal read. Reading slowly and enjoying both the plot, the characters and the sweeping saga style by the author. I’m a sucker for the Russian classics such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina and I can happily put Ellen Alpsten’s novels in such a mould for this century. This encompasses so much well researched history, and although there is a long list of characters at the start, remember nearly all are real from the time (with a few added for fictional drama). Settle down, even in the summer, by a roaring fire and a shot of vodka – these words will warm a lot of reading joy. From Russia with much love!
Book clubs will probably want to start with the first book Tsarina to get a foothold into the Romanovs, but I am sure the whole series will gather lots of fans. Never mind the recent Helen Mirren bash at Catherine the Great this one has all the drama (and sex) you need!
Review by Philipa Coughlan
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing (8 July 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1526608635