This novel is described as being the story of the young Catherine the Great, on her way to power in the Russian palace, playing at palace intrigue and alternately watched and helped by a spy, Varvara. Varvara came to the Russian court as an orphaned Polish child, left alone when her parents die. She starts in the wardrobe and then moves up to become spy of the Chancellor, gradually becoming more confident and self-reliant, until she befriends Catherine.
I don’t really know anything about Catherine the Great and I do agree with one of the reviews on the book itself that says this book sends you back to the history books – but this is also because I didn’t really learn anything about Catherine herself. As a novel of palace intrigue and spys believing themselves indispensable for those they work for, this was fairly standard and I didn’t enjoy it as much as Philippa Gregory‘s The Queen’s Foolwho is part-way between entertainer and spy.
The character of Varvara herself was interesting but again not quite as riveting as I’d hoped; I’m usually quite a fan of this historical fiction and can race through quite happily – this time I’m not sure I would have finished it if I hadn’t been on holiday and reading it over a couple of days. I just found the character a little flat, perhaps because she was looking back over her life rather than writing in the present tense, and there wasn’t a particular tension that she was in danger while all around her were characters who are threatened, imprisoned, etc.
I’d definitely like to read more about Russian history on the back of this book and it was an entertaining, unchallenging holiday read.