Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak's novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia's greatest matriarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition.
Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara is a servant who will become one of Russia's most cunning royal spies. Sophia is a pretty, naive German duchess who will become Catherine the Great. For readers of superb historical fiction, Eva Stachniak captures in glorious detail the opulence of royalty and the perilous loyalties of the Russian court.
As told from the perspective of Varvara, a Polish servant girl in the 18th century Russian court, spies and lovers lurk everywhere, while brilliantly bedecked royals indulge their every whim. When readers first meet Catherine the Great, she is 14-year-old Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, brought by her mother to Empress Elizabeth as a potential wife for Elizabeth's nephew and heir, the future Peter III. Sophie quickly realizes that to achieve her marital ambitions, she must please the empress more than her mother or even Peter, who is more interested in playing soldier than he is in Sophie. On advice from the conniving Chancellor Bestuzhev, Elizabeth engages 16-year-old Varvara, well-versed in languages, espionage, and storytelling, to befriend Sophie and spy on her. Varvara's loyalties soon shift to Sophie. After she leaves the court to marry a palace guard, Varvara secretly keeps in touch with Sophie, who becomes Grand Duchess Catherine, despised by an increasingly petulant Peter and distrusted by the demanding Elizabeth. Since Stachniak (Necessary Lies) can't invent anything more bizarre than actual czarist history, she wisely focuses on portraying the liaisons of Russian court life, with Varvara's story paralleling Catherine's before taking its own unique turn. A sequel about Catherine's reign is already in the works.
I really enjoyed this book, a very interesting look into the Russian courts of the 1700's.