Novels on Catherine the Great are few and far between, and I believe most of those are out of print and rather hard to find, so I was thrilled to bits to see a new one coming out. While this is billed as “A Novel of Catherine the Great”, the narrator is Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a daughter of a Polish bookbinder who works as a spy in the household of the Empress Elizabeth, beginning at the time a young Princess Sophie is brought to court to marry Elizabeth’s nephew and heir. Barbara and the newly renamed Catherine become friends (making Barbara a double agent of sorts), and the narration continues through Catherine’s becoming Empress. Fascinating stuff, yes?
Well, no. At least not in this one.
I’m generally not fond of first person narratives, but this one really started off well despite that. I liked Barbara’s voice and I liked the way she managed to impart a lot of historical background without endless exposition. I liked the spy in the household bit, and at first it was believable as Barbara was such a minor servant, but towards the end her indispensability to all and sundry as well her intimate knowledge of everything that happened began to stretch credulity. I also felt the choice to marry Barbara off to one of Elizabeth’s soldiers and remove her from the household for seven years was a poor one, because at that point anything that happened had court had to be relayed to her second-hand via letters or visitors and thus began the info dumps and I began nodding off…
I couldn’t help comparing this novel to Annette Motley’s Men on White Horses (see my review here), a book I read last year and enjoyed a lot. Motley’s book focused on Catherine, and I was able to *see* her thoughts and feelings first hand. With Barbara as the narrator, we’re only seeing what Barbara thinks about Catherine’s thoughts and feelings, and that was a difference that didn’t work as well for me as it did for other readers. I also loved what Motley did with Catherine’s nutty husband Peter (those poor rats…), and I just didn’t find much of that in this book, nor any author’s notes to let me know why that was left out. Three stars.
Reviewed for Amazon Vine.