Book Review : The Romanov Empress

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Romanov EmpressThe Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner
Published by Ballantine Books on July 10th 2018
Genres: Girls & Women, Historical
Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Bookshop.org
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three-stars
Source: NetGalley

For readers of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir comes a dramatic novel of the beloved Empress Maria, the Danish girl who became the mother of the last Russian tsar.

Even from behind the throne, a woman can rule.

Narrated by the mother of Russia’s last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia’s most compelling women who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in the final years of its long reign.                   Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage—as her older sister Alix has done, moving to  England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir and becomes empress once he ascends the throne. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie—now called Maria—must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.                   Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has lead her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.                   From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg and the intrigue-laced salons of the aristocracy to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.

Out of the two Romanov books I read this year—the other being I Was AnastasiaThe Romanov Empress was my personal favorite. I never gave any thought to the mother of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, also known as Minnie. This book was clearly extremely well researched and I learned so much from it, despite it being historical fiction. I enjoyed this atypical princess story, but got a little frustrated with Minnie’s character at times. Regardless, it was clear that this Tsarina was a strong woman and I enjoyed watching her growth as a character and her opinions on the catastrophes that repeatedly befell the Romanov family over the years.

 

I wasn’t in the mood for a historical fiction novel when I picked up this book, but I got hooked on it right away. I was unable to put the novel down and would certainly read more of the author’s novels in the future. Even though most readers will likely know about the tragedies leading to taking down the Romanov dynasty, the novel is not depressing. I felt almost as if I were a member of the royal family when reading this novel, so absorbed was I in their dazzling world of palaces and Fabergé eggs.

 

I loved main character Minnie from the moment she was introduced as a young girl—known as Princess Dagmar of Denmark—watching her older sister, Alix, marry the Prince of Wales. Minnie was fiery and precocious and even had no problems denying Queen Victoria what she wanted. Minnie and her sister were not typical princesses, growing up poor, sewing their own clothes, and cleaning their own house. Minnie was not happy at her family’s rise to the royal family of Denmark due to the death of a family member, and was even less pleased that it means her sister and her will be separated. She was loathe to marry the Tsarevitch of Russia, Nix, but fell hopelessly in love with him and agreed to marry him. Tragically, Nix died before the two could wed. On his deathbed, Nix made Minnie and his brother—known to the family as Sasha—promise to wed, ensuring she would still become the empress of Russia one day.

 

This was only the first of many tragedies to befall the Romanov family, and Minne would indeed outlive not only her first fiancé, but also her father-in-law, new husband and four of her six children through her own common sense and tenacity. Throughout her life, Minnie became a nurse, advisor, mother, grandmother, and patron of the Red Cross. It was clear that if her son, Tsar Nicholas II had listened to his mother’s advice, instead of practically banishing her due to the wishes of his unpopular and incapable wife Alexandra, that things would have turned out differently for the family. Despite Minne’s fall from grace with her son and the revolution of their people, she managed to save refugees when her nephew—King George the V of England—sent his battleship to get her out of the country, refusing to leave without her people. She was truly a force of nature, being tactful, sociable, and brave enough to move far away from the only home she ever knew—taking on a new religion, language, and culture.

 

Despite all of the good she did, I admittedly grew frustrated at times that Minnie seemed to get caught up in the splendor and riches of court, and lost touch with her impoverished roots. But then I asked myself, how could anyone be completely impervious to the wealth and power of the Romanov dynasty? Despite being much more haughty and elitist in her older age (and downright obnoxiously petty to her new daughter-in-law and controlling to her son and the rest of her children), Minnie was still a cut above the rest of the court. She mostly raised her own children, learned how to become a nurse during the wars, turned her palace into a hospital, founded a society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was actively involved in education, and constantly pushed for reforms in order to avoid revolution. She also unsuccessfully sought to sway her husband, Tsar Alexander III, that the people needed more rights in order to solve the unrest.

 

Though the book was filled with political issues, I mostly enjoyed the relationships and romance of the novel. I hated to see Minnie’s relationship with Nix struck down before it could begin, but I loved her hesitant and accepting love of her flawed husband, Tsar Alexander III, familiarly known as Sasha. Most of all, I enjoyed reading about Tsar Nicholas II and his problematic wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their relationship with Rasputin through the eyes of someone not in that nuclear family. I was surprised to find myself really loathing Alexandra. She shirked many of her duties as the Empress of Russia, gave her husband terrible advice, made awful decisions for her family, and was just all around an unpleasant human being who further isolated the family from those who could help. I could not help but wonder what would have happened to the Romanov family if Nicholas II had just listened to his mother and married a more suitable bride.

 

Typically, I have read novels through Anastasia’s eyes, so it was wonderful to see the events unfold through the eyes of an adult who did not agree with the actions of the family. I loved Minnie’s secret support of her father-in-law’s reform ideas before he was killed by a bomb in a revolt—something I never even knew happened. Particularly of interest to me was her aforementioned dislike of her daughter-in-law Alexandra, her meeting with Rasputin and her reactions to his assassination, and the illness of her grandson, Tsarevitch Alexei. Minnie’s rivalry with her sister-in-law, known as Miechkin, was also humorous and fun. I was always interested to see what the two would do next in order to top each other.

 

My one issue with the novel, wasn’t really an issue with the writing, but the inconvenience of history. Everyone was taking regal names left and right when they entered the Russian Orthodox church, and there were so many Olgas, Marias, Alexanders, Nicholases, etc,. that I often found myself confused which family member I was reading about. This is through no fault of the author’s, as he does include a family tree, but was really my own issue with keeping them all straight. Plus, all of the characters and royalty throughout many different countries were related! It was a club of royalty and everyone and their brother was a member. For example, Minnie’s sister was the Queen of England, her nephew the eventual King George V, and her brother King of Greece.

 

Regardless of this confusion, I really enjoyed this glimpse back into the glittering world of the Romanovs, even as it crumbled around the characters. It was fascinating to watch the unrest grow at the beginning of Minne’s time in Russia, and to see it eventually develop into revolution that crushed the dynasty despite her actions. Throughout it all, Minnie was a strong character, with believable motivations—who though far from perfect—was very likable. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good historical fiction novel, the Romanovs, or just plain fiction. I learned so much from this immersive book and would definitely read more of the author’s novels in the future.

three-stars
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Posted July 13, 2018 in Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

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2 responses to “Book Review : The Romanov Empress

  1. Anonymous

    [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “trash”. Reason: Failed GASP Bot Filter Test (checkbox) *]
    I love the Romanovs! This book sounds like the thing I need

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