A Danish princess becomes a Russian czarina, mother to the last Romanov czar.
In his 10th historical novel, Gortner (The Vatican Princess, 2016, etc.) creates a vibrant portrait of imperial Russia, narrated by the woman at its throbbing center: Maria Feodorovna. The daughter of Denmark’s King Christian IX, Minnie, as she was known, was destined to marry into royalty, just as her older sister, Alix, did when she married Queen Victoria’s son, Bertie. Faced with a marriage to the czarevich, Nicholas, she was surprised to find herself falling in love with “his gentle spirit and noble soul.” But suddenly, he was dying, exacting a promise from Sasha, one of his brothers, to wed Minnie. When Minnie balks at the idea of marrying a man so unlike her beloved Nixa, her mother rebukes her sternly: “Think of everything you can achieve,” not only as “conscience and counsel” for her husband, but also for the good of Denmark. As Maria Feodorovna, she arrives in a nation beset by turmoil and violence. Although her father-in-law, Czar Alexander II, enacted liberal changes, such as abolishing serfdom, Nihilists and anarchists cry for more: “they sow terror in the hope that I’ll either grant reforms or abdicate. Preferably abdicate,” Alexander tells Minnie. “They have no use for a tsar.” While Russian royalty reside in opulent palaces and bedeck themselves in stunning arrays of precious jewels, peasants live in abject poverty. Visiting a Red Cross hospital, Maria is shocked by the “searing display of the plight of the poor.” When Alexander II is assassinated, Sasha emerges as an oppressive ruler, trying to contain bloody dissension. When he dies of illness, he is succeeded by his son, Nicholas, whose czarina, Alexandra—whom Maria vehemently dislikes—has her own ideas about Russian supremacy, fueled in part by her alliance with the unsavory Rasputin. Politics and war form the backdrop of a story more closely focused on court gossip, family tensions, and the arrogance and isolation that led the Romanovs to their doom. “We existed in a dream,” Maria reflects, “enclosed in our lacquered splendor.”
A briskly narrated tale of power and revolution.