The Romanov Empress
This gorgeous, glorious, haunting book vividly imagines the inner life of Dagmar of Denmark, wife to the Russian tsar Alexander III and mother of the ill-fated Nicholas II. The novel opens with a teenaged Minnie, as she is called, grumbling about her father’s sudden elevation among the ruling families of Europe and the consequent marriage of her sister Alix to Bertie, heir to Queen Victoria of Britain, only the first trial in a dramatic life that brings Minnie unrivaled wealth, power, fame, and heartbreak.
Though the book spans decades, the historic tumults of imperial Russia, including revolutions, poverty, and occasional war, are the backdrop to Minnie’s domestic joys and squabbles: competing with the grand duchesses to be the toast of the fashionable world, bearing children, and, after the shocking assassination of her father-in-law, Alexander II, supporting her husband in his role as Russia’s Little Father. The details of gowns, jewels, parties, and palaces get more attention than her charity work or public functions, but Gortner’s Minnie is a captivating and believable character: courageous, flawed, committed to the public good, and concerned for Russia’s prosperity as it supports the health and safety of her ruling family.
Minnie’s doom, and Russia’s, begins when her son Nicholas marries the poisonous Alexandra of Hesse, who in this version of events is largely responsible for Nicky’s impotent reign, the influence of the hated Rasputin, and the slaughter of the Romanovs by Bolsheviks during the Revolution of 1918. As with his previous historical novels, Gortner provides a completely absorbing immersion in this vanished world, transforming the historic footnote of the last tsar’s mother into the compelling tale of a fascinating, principled, and dauntless woman whose courage has a power all its own. An exciting, illuminating read.