But that’s in the future. This is Varvara’s story. She is a compelling character in her own right. As a spy, a champion eavesdropper who has the empress’s permission to snoop, Varvara is able to provide all sorts of information to the reader that most first person narrators cannot reasonably access. If done clumsily, the book wouldn’t have worked, but Stachniak is able to make Varvara a convincing "tongue," one that the reader can empathize with, and all her information is smoothly—though certainly not effortlessly—obtained.
Through Varvara’s eyes, we watch as Empress Elizabeth becomes disenchanted with the bride she has chosen for Peter. The two youths are not suited. As they grow into young adults, they choose their own friends and lovers at court. Catherine is tasked with producing an heir, something she must achieve despite her husband’s disinterest. Everyone at court is involved in everyone else’s business. Important figures rise and fall, and Varvara takes note of them all, passing on whatever information she thinks is most useful to her goal, which has become protecting Catherine.
This is our historical fiction/history book club’s selection for our next meeting. I was pleased with the choice because it’s billed as "a novel of Catherine the Great." I know very little about this famous historical person, and thought the book might be a nice fictional introduction. It isn’t what I expected. It is a very nice introduction to Russian dynastic history–what happened before Catherine the Great came to power (although it focuses very much on what is going on inside the palace. There is very little "big picture" history.) It’s a good set-up for Catherine’s reign. And I enjoyed the book very much for all its strengths and for the glimpse of Russian history that it did show me. But I think I’d prefer to have known going in that I wasn’t really going to be learning about Catherine the Great–what made her great. This does make a good prequel to the next novel which will surely deal with Catherine the Great’s reign. However, the ending of this book was satisfying as it stands. As much as I enjoyed this novel, I think I might move on to Massie’s biography to read about Catherine.
This is my 9th book for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.