This review has more spoilers than I usually toss in to my review, but I couldn’t help it. The storyline and the characters are just so good! If you haven’t read the book yet just know this: It’s awesome and you need to read it.
Without “dumbing it down”, Ficklin has been able to portray events during a very tumultuous time in history in such a captivating way. She has given a new voice to a powerful female figure, shedding new light on the events that helped shape her into one of the most renowned rulers in Russian history.
Ok so here she is: The Catherine we glimpsed at the end of Book 1. She is intelligent and cunning, unafraid of what must be done, and she knows what she wants: She wants love. And she wants the throne. Boom.
Married to Peter, who parades his mistress in front of her at every possible chance, Catherine finds love and solace in Sergei’s arms. Seriously, they’ll make you swoon. When Elizabeth demands an heir for Peter, Catherine is happy to announce that she is with child – but only her and Sergei know the baby’s true paternity. The Empress is elated. Surprisingly, so is Peter who is suddenly appreciative and doting.
Catherine finds herself envisioning a happy future for her and Peter until tragedy strikes and Catherine finds herself sailing down a flight of stairs – after being pushed by a jealous mistress? – and loses the baby. Catherine, Peter, and Sergei are heartbroken. Elizabeth is irate.
When Peter falls deathly ill, Elizabeth sends Catherine away to Oranienbaum Palace with orders to produce an heir, no matter how. With Sergei by her side – and in her bed - Catherine knows she needs make the most of this situation. The clock is ticking. Yes she needs to produce and heir, and quickly, but she also needs to prove her ability to rule independently and to secure allies. Game on.
Always more available and leagues more intelligent than Peter, Catherine was the one who the nobles went to for advice or audience. Proving to be a just ruler, she quickly gained the love and respect of her subjects and has no trouble forming alliances to secure her place on the throne. All she needs to do now is wait and she’ll have everything she wanted.
Or so she thought.
An unexpected change of events violently rips everything she has accomplished away from her, and places Catherine in a heart wrenching and impossible situation. (You think you hated Peter? No. NOW you hate Peter). True to her nature, she refuses to give up or back down.
A desperate plan gone too far goes wrong and Elizabeth takes her revenge, showing how powerless Catherine really is against her. But Catherine’s fire refuses to go out. She refuses to be defeated and there is so much more at stake now.
As soon as I turn the corner into the great hall I know something is terribly wrong. The stewards are watching from around the corner and a line of red and blue guard uniforms obscure Peter from my view. In the chair nearest the wall, the court physician is tending a guard who has a long wooden arrow protruding from his shoulder. I can tell he’s trying not to make a sound even as the doctor pushes on the shaft, driving it through the wound so it can be removed from the other side. As I pass by they both give me a look that’s a mixture of relief and pity.
I pass the line and nod to the valet who stands and loudly announces me.
“Her Grace, The Grand Duchess Catherine.”
The guards shift, allowing me to pass. Peter is standing several paces away, resplendent as always in a deep blue tunic adorned with diamonds and sapphires, while one of the uniformed men stands in front of the hay target, a bright red apple on his head. The poor boy can’t be more than fourteen and he looks like he’s about to vomit.
“Husband,” I offer warmly, gliding over to him. “What interesting amusement you’ve discovered.”
I pause, waiting for him to acknowledge me. But he releases the arrow before answering, narrowly missing the boy’s neck. Behind me the guards clap half-heartedly and the young boy shuffles back into line.
“A test of wills,” he says, turning to face me with a wide smile. “If a man can stand without fear before death, only then is he worthy to be in my service.”
Licking my lips I try to think of a solution.
“Of course, but surely this is not such a test. I mean, your skill with the bow is legendary. They must know you would not purposely shoot them, and so there is no risk.” He looks at me and blinks in confusion. I continue, “I mean, there’s no way you would hit them deliberately, so it seems there is no danger at all.”
I swallow. Truthfully, Peter’s aim leaves a great deal to be desired and most of his guards are well aware of the fact.
I clap my hands. “I know! What if I take the shot? Surely there is a good chance I might miss, then the risk of death would be much higher. What say you, Husband?”
I try to keep my expression playful. Finally, he nods.
“Yes, you are quite right. Who among you is brave enough to allow the Duchess to take a shot at them?”
In the line of men, a few raise their hands. Peter hands me the bow and moves to select my target. He chooses the tallest of the men and walks him to the target. Then he digs around in the basket for the smallest apple he can find, only half the size of my fist. He takes a bite before setting it upon the guard’s head and making his way back to me, a merry jaunt in his step.
Taking one of the arrows from the basket, I take a deep breath. Beside me Peter clutches his hands to his chest, giddy with the prospect of me missing and accidently shooting the poor guard in the face. I draw the bow slowly until I feel my hand almost touch my cheek. I exhale, closing one eye to focus on the small, red target, and release the arrow. It flies true and in less than a heartbeat there’s a thud as the impaled apple lodges itself into the wall behind my target.
This time the applause is genuine. Everyone looks elated and impressed.
Everyone, that is, except Peter, whose face falls into a disappointed frown.
I hold up my hands for silence, “How fortunate for you that The Grand Duke taught me how to shoot!” I say with a laugh, then I curtsey to Peter who looks only slightly mollified.
“True, true,” he says to the crowd. “But I tire of this. How about a new challenge?”
The guards clap again, probably in relief.
Peter takes the bow from me and glares at me with his ice blue eyes.
“Go stand in front of the target,” he demands.
I hesitate for a heartbeat only, knowing that to refuse would incur his wrath. So I nod and slowly glide down the hall, replacing the guard whom I have just spared. I clasp my hands behind my back and hold my chin high. Even at this distance I can see Peter’s mind churning. He could kill me, here in front of all these people. An accident. A game gone terribly wrong. It would leave him free to marry his mistress Elizavetta who—much to her credit—is nowhere to be seen at the moment.
A shocked murmur ripples through the onlookers. I smile widely and take an apple from the basket, resting it on my head, just behind my diamond tiara.
“Calm down, you silly people. The Grand Duke would never hurt me. What kind of king accidentally shoots his queen? He would be a laughingstock! Have faith in your future king!”
A nervous laugh reverberates through the crowd at my words.
Peter glares at me as he considers my words. When he draws the bow, I see something flicker in his eyes, and I wonder if he cares what people would think, or if being rid of me might just be worth it to him.
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