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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

I was sent a proof copy of this novel a few months ago and it published earlier this month. Historical fiction is part of my eclectic taste along with family sagas, literary stuff, young adult fiction and anything to do with detectives. So I pounced on this brick of a book which is actually a sequel to an earlier novel but I was half way through it before I realised that.

Now – having grown up on Jean Plaidy and Anya Seyton – much of the history I know first came to my attention through fiction. But most of it was, and still is, British via Philippa Gregory, CJ Sansom, Hilary Mantel et al.  The Tsarina’s Daughter plunged me into eighteenth century Imperialist Russia and it felt a bit deep end because most of my usual landmarks were missing.

However I learned an enormous amount – assisted my Google which I kept consulting to check that the historical facts are right. And of course they are.  As historian Will Durrant observed: Education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance.

Elizabeth is the daughter of Peter the Great in a dynasty which has succession by appointment rather than automatic birthright, Her fortunes go up and down after the death of her father and life is hideously dangerous and very violent. Puzzlingly, characters seem to keep changing their personality – friendly one minute and (very) hostile the next but everyone is involved in a power struggle and I suppose the (literal) backstabbing culture really was part of everyday life.

Lizenka, as she is known to her intimates, eventually rises to the top of the pile, against the odds and after a couple of colourfully evoked love affairs, and reigns for twenty years.

It’s an interesting read for another reason. I will overlook the occasional jarring laziness in the writing (“Russia was caught between a rock and a hard place”) for the general knowledge I picked up. The Russian version of soured cream is known as smetena and the whip used for corporal punishment at court was a knout – what a useful Scrabble word! There is a nice lot of this sort of thing in what is actually a pretty compelling novel.  I might now read Alpsten’s Tsarina which was published last year.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The African Queen by CS Forester

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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