The Romanov Empress
I haven’t found much in the way of historical fiction set in Russia that doesn’t deal with the Russian Revolution, and while that time period does interest me a great deal, I do like a bit of variety in my reading. So, when I read the blurb for C.W. Gortner’s latest work The Romanov Empress, I decided to give it a try. It’s the story of Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the last Russian Czar.
Princess Dagmar of Denmark – known as Minnie – knows it’s her lot in life to be married off to one of Europe’s great rulers. It’s not necessarily something she looks forward to, but it’s what her family expects of her, and Minnie is a dutiful daughter. So when a marriage is proposed to the son of Russia’s emperor, Minnie readies herself to leave her home and her family for a far away land different from anything she’s ever known.
When Minnie’s betrothed falls ill unexpectedly, Minnie wonders if she’s being given a reprieve and that perhaps she’s not destined to be a Russian empress after all. However, it soon becomes clear that her destiny does indeed lie in Russia for the younger brother of her former intended proposes marriage to her in his stead. At first, Minnie can’t bear the thought of marrying the brutish Sasha, but she’s not really given a choice in the matter, and once she and Sasha marry, Minnie is forced to take a new, more Russian-sounding name, and so is known as Maria Feodorovna from then on.
As time goes by and Maria and Sasha become better acquainted, Maria comes to the realization that Sasha is not the boorish man she first thought him to be. He does have a tough exterior, but she comes to care deeply for the kind-hearted man behind the taciturn façade. When Sasha’s father dies, Sasha is crowned Emperor and Maria is by his side as Empress, and her life changes once again.
Initially, Maria and Sasha don’t feel equipped to rule, but they slowly grow accustomed to their new responsibilities. Maria gives birth to several children, and for the most part, her life is a happy one. There is a certain amount of political unrest in the country, but Maria and Sasha do their best to keep their subjects happy. Unfortunately, the unrest worsens, and the royal family is forced to face the fact that their dynasty might be coming to an end.
I was captivated by the first half of this novel and I loved watching Maria come into her own as Russia’s empress. Her relationship with Sasha is quite lovely to behold, especially once they realize they actually do love one another. Unfortunately, I found myself beginning to lose interest about midway through the story. Once Sasha dies and his son Nicholas becomes Emperor, the plot seems to drag and Maria becomes a bit of a nightmare as she struggles to convince Nicholas to rule the country the way she feels is best. There are some fascinating tidbits in the novel’s second half, but most of it was extremely hard to get through.
It’s obvious the author did a lot of research in order to write this story and the Russia he creates feels very real. Since this is historical fiction, I imagine he took certain liberties in order to make the story interesting, but nothing feels overly sensationalized.
This is a sizable novel, at just under 450 pages, and there’s a part of me that wonders if it really needed to be that long. I’m all for big books, but they have to hold my interest in a way this one didn’t always manage to do. It might have been easier to get through if the author hadn’t gone into such painstaking detail so much of the time.
The Romanov Empress isn’t at all a bad book, but it’s not one I can imagine rereading. Its pacing is a little uneven and it lacked some of the court intrigue I look for in this kind of novel. Even so, if you love historical fiction and are looking for something set in Russia before the Revolution, this might meet your needs.
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