This historical fiction is an imaginative recreation of the Russian court from 1743 to 1764, an epic story of three amazing women who lived at the palace. We are introduced to Empress Elizabeth, the youngest surviving daughter of Peter the Great, German princess Sophie and in a shrewd move the author invented a fictional character, Barbara (Varvara) an orphaned Polish girl who became a court spy for both rulers. This story is essentially hers and her narration takes us behind every closed door in Elizabeth’s court.
In 1744, Princess Sophie of Prussia comes to the Russian court for her betrothal to the Grand Duke Peter (Elizabeth’s nephew and heir to the throne). Sophie converts to Russian Orthodoxy and after her wedding becomes Catherine, the Grand Duchess. Sophie soon realizes she needs an insider, someone to be her confidante, giving her a heads up thus protecting her against those who are determined to see her fail. With Varvara by her side, Sophie/Catherine becomes a legend, surviving trials, tribulations, and the coup that allows her to rise and assume the throne of all of Russia.
This passionate saga captures the atmosphere of eighteenth century Russia exceptionally well stressing the importance of loyalty, the key to a powerful monarchy. Success is often determined by a person’s ability to conspire, spy and manipulate everyone around you. The reader is slowly drawn into the day to day life of Imperialist Russia examining the intrigues and extravagance from the point of view of a servant, at times this description was a little over done. I was disappointed at first to see Catherine being portrayed as a hazy and opaque figure and never really achieving the importance of a leading figure then I remembered that Varvara is the prime player.
Just when Catherine’s dreams are about to materialize and my interest was at a high point the end came to a screeching halt. Apparently in the next installment “The Empire of the Nights” we will see things from Catherine’s point of view and maybe this will help to paint a more complete picture of the times.