The story is told by Barbara (called Varvara in Russian), a Polish book-binder's daughter who turns out to have a natural knack for espionage, although her lessons in it include deflowering at the hands of the spymaster, Alexei Bestuzhev, the Chancellor of Russia. The two women whose lives bookend the story--the ruthless Elizabeth (daughter to Peter the Great) and Catherine--seemingly could not be much different but as Varvara realizes, Catherine has her own agenda and her own methods.
There is love in the book, and a fair amount of sex, but that aspect of the story does not drive it. Probably the most intense man/woman connection in the entire novel is the one between Varvara and her spymaster, and in later scenes, when he tells her some harsh truths about her situation, we know that he is right because we're told so in Catherine's own words at the very beginning of the story.
If you're looking for an historical novel that's long on detail and layered with great observations, you should take a look at The Winter Palace.
The writing is beautiful as well, and not because Stachniak has loaded it with ornate little curlicues of purple prose. For example, the fabled "Amber Room" is mentioned but there's no description of it. The fabrics and embroideries of Catherine's gowns, however, are all detailed and from those descriptions we get a glimpse of just how opulent the Russian court must have been.
The same is true for Catherine, who grows from a seemingly compliant girl-child to a formidable power on her own.
Varvara has her own niche in the story, and taken together, this is an outstanding trio of women whose tales mesh to create a heightened reality of history.
The author was born in Poland and now lives in Canada. Her debut novel (Necessary Lies) won the Amazon CanadaFirst Novel in 2000.
Stachniak's novel The Garden of Venus, a tale of a famous courtesan, is also set in Russia.
If you're looking for an historical fantasy that features women who have more on their mind than men, this is a book for you.