As told from the perspective of Varvara, a Polish servant girl in the 18th century Russian court, spies and lovers lurk everywhere, while brilliantly bedecked royals indulge their every whim. When readers first meet Catherine the Great, she is 14-year-old Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, brought by her mother to Empress Elizabeth as a potential wife for Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, the future Peter III. Sophie quickly realizes that to achieve her marital ambitions, she must please the empress more than her mother or even Peter, who is more interested in playing soldier than he is in Sophie. On advice from the conniving Chancellor Bestuzhev, Elizabeth engages 16-year-old Varvara, well-versed in languages, espionage, and storytelling, to befriend Sophie and spy on her. Varvara’s loyalties soon shift to Sophie. After she leaves the court to marry a palace guard, Varvara secretly keeps in touch with Sophie, who becomes Grand Duchess Catherine, despised by an increasingly petulant Peter and distrusted by the demanding Elizabeth. Since Stachniak (Necessary Lies) can’t invent anything more bizarre than actual czarist history, she wisely focuses on portraying the liaisons of Russian court life, with Varvara’s story paralleling Catherine’s before taking its own unique turn. A sequel about Catherine’s reign is already in the works.
This first novel in a planned trilogy begins at the Russian court of Empress Elizabeth. Searching for a bride for her nephew, grandson of Peter the Great and designated heir to the throne, Elizabeth invites the Prussian Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbs to St. Petersburg. She also enlists Varvara, the novel's narrator and a bookbinder's daughter married to an esteemed member of the palace guard, to befriend and spy on the princess. Trading in secrets while trying to protect her new friend and advance her own position, Varvara follows the loves, disappointments, and successes of Princess Sophie, rebaptized as Catherine, through the last two decades of Elizabeth's rule and the dramatic coup that leads to Catherine's reign as empress. VERDICT Stachniak (Dancing with Kings) sets the scene extravagantly with details of sumptuous meals, elaborate wardrobes, and cunning palace politics. Longtime readers of English and French historical novels will delight in this relatively unsung dynasty and the familiar hallmarks of courtly intrigue. — Cathy Lantz, Morton Coll. Lib., Cicero
(Starred review.) Stachniak’s brilliant, bold historical novel of eighteenth-century Russia is a masterful account of one woman’s progress toward absolute monarchical rule. . . . This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.
All this watchful waiting saps the novel of drama. Historically brilliant and erudite, Catherine comes off as a passive and needy whiner, dependent on others to mediate for her. Varvara is such a covert operator that her personality never emerges. Less a novel than a 400-plus-page prologue to an anticipated sequel.
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