Born as Marta Skowrońska, the Tsarina Catherine Alexeyevna rose from obscurity and poverty to become the most powerful woman in 18th-century Russia. Tsarina, a sweeping debut historical novel by Ellen Alpsten, imagines Catherine's life, drawing upon historical documents for her later years and conjuring the formative experiences that shaped Catherine into the ruler she was to become.

Set against the backdrop of tumultuous years in Russia's history, Tsarina provides an in-depth look at critical moments in Marta's life prior to and after becoming Catherine, Peter the Great's second wife. Rare moments of kindness and stability are punctuated by extreme circumstances: rape, starvation and even murder in self-defense, laying the groundwork for Marta's development as a smart, strong and strategic woman who would do anything to survive. At each crossroad, Marta is able to trade up her situation in life, rising through the social and economic ranks through her beauty and adaptability, until she finds herself installed as the tsar's mistress. She bears him 12 children throughout their time together, though they are little more than pawns in Tsar Peter's increasingly depraved and unstable court.

By the time Peter bestows on her the name Catherine Alexeyevna--a regal name befitting the tsarina she was to become--Catherine has become brutal herself, succumbing to the Machiavellian plots and questionable tactics that match the tsar's limitlessness and unimaginable behavior. Tsarina evocatively explores how far one woman would go to stay alive, even if it means serving a man with unbridled power and then picking up that mantle herself. --BrocheAroe Fabian, owner, River Dog Book Co.

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