The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir, Alexander, and once he ascends the throne, becomes empress. 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 led 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.
Synopsis from Amazon
My knowledge of the Romanov dynasty is pretty much solely from the movie Anastasia and the Royal Diaries: Anastasia - The Last Grand Duchess novel from The Royal Diaries Collection, which means I pretty much only know about the last decade of their rule and their brutal ending. Picking up The Romanov Empress, I was really excited to read about Tsar Nicholas II's mother and one of the most famous Russian Tsarina's. Minnie's story did not disappoint.
From Humble Beginnings to Mother of Russia
One of the things I love the most about imperial history is how most European families were closely related and the familial dynamics that they engaged in; Queen Victoria of England is actually jokingly known as the Grandmother of Europe because of the number of her children and grandchildren that went on to rule other countries (including her granddaughter, Alexandra, who would become the last Tsarina of Russai). Maria, known as Minnie, begins her journey as the poor daughter of a forgotten Danish prince, only to marry the crown prince of Russia and later become its Empress. Her transition from sewing her own gowns to commanding ballrooms was wonderful to read about. Minnie did not shy away from a challenge and took on the harshness of Russia with grace and strength.
Rich History of Russia
Russia is an incredibly old country and I love that Minnie's story gives us some of its history. The freeing of the serfs, the numerous rebellions and revolutions, the strong Orthodox Church, and the numerous other little details about palace and common life that Gortner weaves throughout Minnie's story was wonderful to read about. Beyond Minnie's personal challenges (the death of her first fiance, losing a child, learning to love, and learning the rules of the Russian court), her reign and the reign of her son were some of the most intense moments of political upheaval during the Romanov rule. It's hard to make a connection with these characters knowing the horrible ending that they would soon be part of, but I was still so happy to gain some insight into this luxurious world before it all came crashing down.
Playing the Blame Game
Historically, Maria and her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, did not get along at all, but knowing that their relationship is historical fact did not make it any less frustrating with how much blame Maria put on Alexandra throughout this book. The last third of the novel is basically Minnie constantly thinking and saying that Alexandra is to blame for Nicholas being a poor tsar. All I kept thinking was that Minni and Sasha had done it to themselves; they basically gave Nicky no training or education on how to actually rule Russia, and then Minnie is surprised that he continues to make poor decisions. While Alexandra definitely wasn't a good choice as his bride, she cannot be the sole person blamed for the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Sorry Minnie, but that's a shared blame!
Maria Feodorovna's life was one of great passions and great loss, and this book does a great job giving us insight into both. While Tsar Nicholas II will always be known as the last Romanov Emperor, it is his mother who will now stand out in my mind. This is a wonderful read and I'd highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in history, Russia, the Romanov's, or simply wants to learn about a strong female matriarch who did everything she could to help her family survive.
FINAL RATING: 4/5
Hi, I'm Alexandra! I love reading (largely YA fiction, but sometimes I'll read "adult" books), playing board games, Nutella, and binge-watching TV shows on Netflix with my husband.
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