From veteran romancer Hill: a fictional treatment of Catherine I of Russia, mistress and then wife of Peter the Great--delivered, for the most part, in the rather bland, first-person style of Jean Plaidy's recent queen-noveLs. Catherine I--known throughout her career as Marfa, or Ekaterina, with four different jaw-breaking patronymics--starts out as a Livonian peasant orphan, is raised by a kindly pastor, captured by Russians, appropriated as mistress by a swinish Field Marshal. . . but then she's taken over by elegant Alexander Menshikov (himself a former ""pieman"" and groom who became a playmate to young Tsar-to-be Peter) as laundress and bedmate. So, at Menshikov's home, Catherine sleeps with Tsar Peter, taking note of his venereal disease. And soon it becomes obvious that only Catherine can free Peter from his ""evil dreams,"" nightmares which might have something to do with slaughters he saw as a boy. Catherine is by Peter's side through his building of Petersburg, his wars against just about everybody, and his amusements--from anticlerical carnival processions to wild water-excursions (Peter loves boats). She also witnesses Peter's grisly side: the terrible torture and death of his son Alexis, whose mother is a hated ex-wife; the display of a pickled, decapitated head when Catherine is guilty of a dalliance with a young lover. And finally there's public wedlock for mistress Catherine--with a two-year reign after Peter's death (Menshikov is the power behind the throne) and an alcoholic demise for the Empress herself. With interwoven narrations by Menshikov, Alexis, and Catherine's daughter Elizabeth Petrovna (later Empress), Hill manages to clarify some of the Romanov family's maze of generations; the history is middle-of-the-road correct; and Hill's view of Alexis--as a gentle, scholarly, vulnerable pawn--is more or less convincing. But, despite the generous detailing (the treks, the treats, the terrors), primary narrator Catherine lacks the inner fire and dramatic fiber one expects to find in a survivor of so much madness and violence.