VAVARA’S father, a Polish bookbinder, held favour in the Russian court of the newly-crowned Empress Elizabeth, and, when he dies his young daughter is given sewing duties in the palace.

Seeing Vavara as a possible court spy, Count Bestuzhev, chancellor and spymaster, teaches her all the ways of uncovering and keeping secrets. When the young Princess Sophie of Zerbst comes to marry the Empress’s nephew, Vavara is told to spy on her. But being close in age they become good friends and Vavara is torn between duty and friendship.

She watches as Sophie, who will become Catherine the Great, endures mental cruelty, has illicit lovers and endures a deep loneliness. But Vavara has misjudged her friend and does not realise the lengths Catherine will go to in overthrowing the regime.

This is an enthralling story of 18th century Russia and her politics. We see the fragility of human nature set against ruthless ambition and the difficulties of trust and friendship within high places.

You are vividly there alongside the characters in their glory and their hardships.

I loved this first-rate historical novel and still find it hard to leave behind.