STARRED REVIEW
July 2018

Matriarch of a fallen dynasty

By C.W. Gortner
Review by

If there were ever a cautionary tale about the disasters of patriarchy and inequality, the tale of the Romanovs is it. C.W. Gortner’s engaging historical novel tells the story of the last dowager empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, née Princess Dagmar of Denmark.

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If there were ever a cautionary tale about the disasters of patriarchy and inequality, the tale of the Romanovs is it. C.W. Gortner’s engaging historical novel tells the story of the last dowager empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, née Princess Dagmar of Denmark.

Engaged as a teenager to the czarevich (the Russian heir apparent) who dies suddenly, Maria is handed over to his brother, the gruff Alexander III. Luckily for her, their marriage is a devoted one.

Despite (or because of) the unfathomable wealth and privilege of the Russian imperial family—they can literally get away with murder—the Russian people are getting tired of them. Nihilists finally blow up Maria’s father-in-law, Czar Alexander II, and other members of the czar’s family. And everyone knows the fate of Maria’s son Nicholas II and his family.

Is it possible that these tragedies did not have to happen? Under inhuman pressure to produce a male heir, Maria’s emotionally brittle daughter-in-law Alexandra gives birth to four healthy daughters before she finally produces a son, the hemophiliac Alexei. Because of the boy’s illness, Alexandra and Nicholas II fall under the spell of Rasputin. Consider what would have happened if Alexandra had her first two daughters, an heir and a spare, and was then allowed to quit.

Maria is fairly good-hearted, but forget about her checking her privilege. According to her, the czar and imperial family were ordained to rule by God. There is no scene in the book more heartbreaking or queasily funny than when Cossacks break into Maria’s bedroom in the middle of the night, and she reminds them that she’s the dowager empress—though by then, it hardly matters. The imperial downfall has already begun.

Gortner is wonderfully subtle, but given the times we live in, the problems are obvious: When a tiny percentage of people hold most of the wealth, it leads to demagoguery. The Romanov Empress relates an important piece of history. It’s also a warning about what comes when a nation is marred by rampant inequality.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Romanov Empress

The Romanov Empress

By C.W. Gortner
Ballantine
ISBN 9780425286166

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