I imagined endless winters under snow-filled midnight skies, with fur-swathed heathens downing vodka and smashing the cutlery. Anything that added to my determination to find the tsarevich unworthy became grist for my imagination, until my fear assumed such epic proportions even I had to admit not all of it could possibly be true.
I knew from the first few pages that I was going to absolutely love this novel. The Romanov Empress follows the life of Empress Maria Feodorovna from her slightly more humble beginnings in Denmark to her marriage to the Romanov heir of Russia and finally fighting to help save the empire as the mother of Nicholas II – the last Russian tsar.
This was my first novel by C.W. Gortner and after reading this, I’m already checking the library for more of his work. This is exactly the type of generational sweeping historical work that I completely adore. Gortner’s writing is elegant and beautiful so that even though there is hardly any real action, I was pulled through Maria’s life with fascination and while I had a pretty good idea of how it would end, I was still sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the inevitable.
I knew practically nothing about Maria Feodorovna before I picked this up. Of course I figured that Tsar Nicholas II had to have had a mother but I never gave her much thought. In the middle of the novel, I realized that she was portrayed as Anastasia’s Grandmother, the Dowager Empress in the 1997 animated film (and voiced by the magnificent Angela Landsbury). Unfortunately, (especially because the film Anastastia isn’t exactly known for its historical accuracy) my associations with the woman ended there.
“It is what royal wives must do. Do you think your father would be the king he is without me? I am the whip that prods him. I am his ears and eyes, his conscience and counsel; without us, most men would stay little boys. Our family has become who we are because of me, because I never ceased to aspire for more than what we had.”
Maria was passionate, loving, beyond intelligent and fiercely loyal to her adopted country of Russia. She lived and ruled Russia during such a fraught period that she was literally dodging political assassins for the majority of her adult life. And yet, she more than persevered. While parts of her life were almost magical – it was also incredibly sad. Not only did she survive her husband, most of her children (and some of her grandchildren), but she had to watch as her country crumbled around her at the end of her life.
One thing I particularly adored about The Romanov Empress was learning about other large historical figures – both in Russia and around Europe – during this time. Early in the novel, we get to know a mourning Queen Victoria through the eyes of young Maria and her sister Alix (who goes on to marry Victoria’s eldest son & eventually becomes Queen of England herself). And later in the novel, I was fascinated with Maria’s very contentious relationship with her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, especially in regard to Alexandra’s (unhealthy?) attachment to the mystic Rasputin.
I couldn’t recommend this one enough if you love history like I do. If you do pick this one up (Go! Get it now!) then I’ll leave you with one word of advice: The Romanov Empress takes place over decades and Maria had a sprawling family. It seemed like someone was getting married and popping out children every other page (and then naming them all the same thing – lol). All I can say is that my life would have been much easier if I had discovered the handy family trees in the front matter of the novel far earlier than I did. Learn from my mistakes and consult them regularly. 🙂
“We’ve learned very little from history. We should have taken note of the harsh lessons imparted by the French and the Americans. When the people are denied a say in how they should be governed, they will fight, with violence if need be. Rulers can be removed… In the end, we are mortal.”
Thank you to Random House Publishing Group, Ballantine Books and NetGalley for early access to this book is return for my honest opinion.
All quotes are taken from an advanced e-book file. There may be changes against the finished book.
The Romanov Empress will be released on July 10, 2018.