This is the story of the early years of Catherine the Great, seen through the eyes of a young, Polish girl called Barbara (Varvara in Russian). Varvara is the daughter of a bookbinder, who moves to Russia and restores a precious volume for Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great. When Varvara's parents die, she becomes a 'ward of the Crown'. At first, this means that Varvara is set to work in the Imperial Wardrobe, where she is cold, abused, hungry and lonely. Wandering the palace at night she meets Count Bestuzhev, the Chancellor of Russia and he teaches her to become a spy.
Varvara becomes very involved in Palace and Court life - she meets the Empress Elizabeth and reports to both her and the Chancellor. Elizabeth has vowed to rule alone, planning to make her sister's orphaned son the Crown Prince. She arranges his marriage with Princess Sophie, who becomes Catherine. We follow Catherine's arrival at Court at the tender age of fourteen, a German Princess who becomes the Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeyevna. There are many plots, affairs, marriages, sadness and problems ahead for both Catherine and Varvara. All the way through the novel, Varvara is the eyes and ears that inform on the 'game'; plotting and planning amongst the court factions as Catherine struggles to find a place in the shifting loyalties of the Palace. Meanwhile, there is the dominating figure of the Empress Elizabeth, ruling all their lives as Varvara has to decide where her loyalties lie as the game turns dangerous.
This is a wonderful read - Varvara is a very sympathetic character and you cannot wait to find what will happen next. The author is currently working on a second novel about Catherine the Great and I will certainly be keen to read that. Excellent and highly recommended.