Young Catherine the Great, as observed by a palace mole.
Varvara, daughter of a Polish bookbinder, is fortunate, after being orphaned at an early age, to be hired to serve Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a seamstress. Bestuzhev, Chancellor of Russia, soon sees the makings of an excellent spy in the comely young woman. He undertakes her training, and soon she’s ingratiating herself with the Empress and reporting on every tantrum and foible. Catherine, daughter of impoverished Prussian nobles, is brought to Russia to marry Elizabeth’s nephew Peter, the Crown Prince. Varvara and Catherine soon bond, as Catherine’s meddling mother angers the Empress and almost scuttles the betrothal. Once married to Peter, Catherine’s position at court remains precarious—her husband seems more interested in playing soldier than fathering the new heir Elizabeth longs for. Varvara’s loyalty to Catherine antagonizes Bestuzhev, who despises Germans in general and Catherine in particular. Bestuzhev effectively banishes Varvara, arranging her marriage to Egor, an officer of the Palace Guard. Meanwhile Catherine and Peter are consigned to a remote castle in hopes that, deprived of distractions, they will mate. Catherine does produce a son, Paul, in all likelihood fathered by her lover, Saltykov. Elizabeth immediately appropriates Paul, who as he grows becomes a stranger to his mother. Catherine takes another lover, and Varvara is recalled to court by Bestuzhev as he envisions Catherine succeeding Elizabeth instead of Peter (just as Elizabeth herself usurped the throne from other heirs). War with Prussia takes Egor to the front, and as construction on the Empress’ Winter Palace proceeds at a glacial pace, the court waits to see how, and to whom, the balance of power will shift. 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.