Vollack’s (Memoirs of a Headbanger, 2018) epic novel of the early years of Peter the Great’s life offers readers a peek into 17th-century Russia.
In 1682, at age 10, Peter is named czar upon his half brother Fedor’s death. Peter’s grandfather, Czar Alexis, had two wives: Maria Miloslavsky, the late mother of Sophia, Ivan, and Fedor; and, Natalya Naryshkin, the current matriarch and Peter’s mother. Sophia, an ambitious woman of 25, uses her father’s death to instigate a murderous palace coup to become regent and thus re-establish the supremacy of the Miloslavsky clan. Peter, who’s “inquisitive and bright, vigorous and fit,” is to be co-czar with his older, dimwitted half brother, Ivan. As regent, Sophia is the power behind the throne—quite literally: At official events, she directs the boys from a hidden compartment behind their seats, because women aren’t allowed to appear at such gatherings. Natalya, meanwhile, with her trusted counselor Boris Golitsyn, dedicates herself to teaching Peter the art of leadership and survival: “Hold your tongue and mind your temper” when dealing with Sophia; meanwhile, she’s plotting Sophia’s demise. By age 17, Peter is married, awaiting the birth of a child, and recruiting “young men from all stations” to build a fortress. Although he’s rebellious and iconoclastic, he’s much admired by the people. Vollack’s prose is straightforward and descriptive throughout: “Boris Golitsyn stood patiently as an observer, robed and sweating in the warm sunlight.” He also effectively develops his characters by frequently including their thoughts in italics, as when Boris ruminates about Peter: “He inspires respect… we must remember to put him atop a horse whenever possible.” At another point, readers learn the reason for the establishment of Russia’s navy when Peter dwells on Sweden’s massive force: “How long before they find us too tempting….We must have a navy, he thought….Ultimately, a true port.”
A tale that’s jam-packed with details of Kremlin life and palace intrigue, sure to appeal to history buffs.