Catherine: The Great Journey

What an odd choice for a YA novel. And…interestingly executed, we’ll go with that.

Catherine: The Great Journey, Russia 1743, Kristiana Gregory, 2005.

catherine the great.jpg

This is the last installment in the Royal Diaries series (before the halfhearted relaunch), and it’s…different. It’s much shorter than most of the other books, and it’s such an odd choice since Catherine the Great is associated so strongly with licentiousness and autocratic Russian rule. (Even more so than Anastasia, I’d argue, since that story has acquired a lot of romantic cultural twists.) Even though it’s not true that Catherine the Great died in flagrante with a horse, she certainly did have a bunch of lovers and more or less did as she pleased after the death of her husband. And before his death. And while possibly being involved in his death. While I wouldn’t say that her story is inappropriate for younger teens, I would say that her story is infinitely better suited to an adult audience where you can take advantage of all the ready-made drama. Much like the Tudor court.

But since this is a novel about her youth, that doesn’t come into play so much, and what we’re left with instead is a bit on the meek side. A little short, and while it has a lot of interesting points, it feels a little wanting. And similarly there’s very little indication of the very strong personality Catherine had—she was an immensely powerful and intelligent ruler, but the Catherine in this book come off as a bit on the weak side. Part of that is due to her position, but because the epilogue is so short and wimpy it loses a lot of its potential.

Catherine was born Sophia, a princess of Prussia, and that is where we meet her at the beginning of the book. Her mother, the princess Johanna, is the main antagonist of her story, because her drive for familial power coupled with her disregard or even outright dislike of her daughter is a fairly toxic combination. So Catherine (I’m just going to refer to her as such because to go from Sophie to Catherine is needless in a novel with a first-person narrative, and also because I’m lazy) is fully aware that her mom isn’t her biggest fan, but what she does want is a Good Marriage for her, and that means Charles-Peter of Holstein, slated to be the king of Sweden. (Spoiler alert: He does not become the king of Sweden.) But her mom goes far into outright verbally berating her—“You’re plain as a toad” and “Who would ever want to marry you?” Nice. She slaps her around a bit, and then has her portrait painted at the Empress Elisabeth’s request, because she might be mean to Catherine but she knows that she’s still the family meal ticket.

As it happens, Elisabeth thinks the portrait is great, and asks that Sophia and her mother go to Berlin to meet with Frederick, the king of Prussia. If he approves, they’ll go on to Russia to meet Elizabeth herself, because she wants Catherine to marry Charles-Peter, whom she’s selected as her successor. Catherine’s father warns her that even if she succeeds and marries him, the empress will make her life extraordinarily hard, and that she’s an incredibly difficult woman and her life will not be easy. One of the things that aggravated me about this book is that since it’s a diary-style format, you should know the narrator intimately well—and barely at all in this book do we get the sense of what Catherine wants. Does she even want to be a queen, let alone an empress? All skimmed over in favour of what her mother wants.

She is a great success with Frederick, who sends her and her mother ahead to Russia on an unbearably long journey in the middle of winter. Catherine’s mother spends the entire time complaining about how uncomfortable it is (this just in: travel in 1743 not comfortable!) and Catherine spends the entire time fretting about what will happen when they get there. Another quibble: the title of the book is “The Great Journey,” which I had interpreted to mean the journey from Germany to Russia, but the entire trip is dispensed of in eight pages. The subtitle in a lot of the other books is meant to be evocative of the title character’s image—i.e., “Elizabeth 1: Red Rose of the House of Tudor,” “Cleopatra: Daughter of the Nile,” “Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars,” “Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine,” and so on. “The Great Journey” feels like such a cop-out! I get that it’s a play on “Catherine the Great,” but…it doesn’t actually work. It’s so strange. That’s seriously the best they could come up with? I digress.

When they arrive in Riga (now Latvia, then-Russia), the empress has sent great sleighs and furs for their trip the rest of the way to St. Petersburg. Suddenly Catherine is bathed in luxury—dresses and furs and maids and all the rest. But all this pales in comparison to the real horror, when Catherine meets Charles-Peter for the first time in years, and discovers he hasn’t changed a bit. At sixteen he still plays with toys, but he drinks like a man. But the empress is impressed with Catherine and takes a shine to her, giving her all kinds of dresses and jewels and things. (Quibble: at one point the empress is described as wearing a dress “the color of milk chocolate,” when milk chocolate wasn’t invented until the 1830s.) After hearing about how fickle the empress can be (having sent away her least-favourite people, or people who pissed her off, to Siberia), Catherine opts to become as keen as possible.

So she starts learning Russian, which is hard (can vouch for!), and almost immediately she comes down with a fever. This is true—Catherine really did become very sick almost immediately after arriving in Russia, and it really was attributed to her staying up very late at night to learn Russian. I don’t think this is true, since “staying up late in drafty rooms,” while not comfortable, does not give people fevers, but it played extremely well in the public conscious and cemented Elizabeth’s choice of bride for her nephew. Anyway, in the novel, Elizabeth is raving on and on about what a jewel Catherine is, and how she’s won the hearts of her people, and so on and so forth, but while she’s recuperating she overhears some gossip about her mother—that other people are accusing her of spying for Prussia.

After Catherine recovers, the empress is away on a pilgrimage and sends for her and Peter, and formally accuses Catherine’s mother of being a German spy. Which she is. So there’s very little room for argument. But again, other than “I feel sick about this” there’s almost no discussion of how she feels, or what she thinks, or…anything! We skip right ahead six weeks to a few days before the official betrothal ceremony, and Catherine is also converting to Orthodoxy.

One of the things I did enjoy about this book (since I’ve been ripping on it a lot) is how it’s a book about identity, and the changing of one’s identity. I think it could have been explored more, but it does an interesting job of exploring what’s immutable in identity and what’s not. Catherine changes her religion, her country, her name, all for the sake of being able to rule Russia, but she does at some points wonder what will be left of her, and who she really is. This part is great—it could have had more.

Peter, though, doesn’t feel that way (or feel deeply about anything, at all, apparently), and says he’ll always be German regardless of what happens. Also could have been an interesting tack: would this drive a wedge between him and the empress? Who knows! Not explored! But it could have been really interesting, especially given that the next several pages are devoted to Catherine and Peter following the empress around to different monasteries around Russia.

Peter comes down with the measles, recovers, and then immediately comes down with the smallpox (OMG) and is quarantined. Suddenly, Catherine’s world seems very very very dangerous—although she’s betrothed to the heir to the Russian throne, if he dies, she’s going to be shit out of luck. That combined with the fact that her mother is so unpopular means that she’s suddenly in a terrible position. But he recovers and he’s so horribly pockmarked that Catherine can barely stand to look at him. She has to, of course, and the empress sets their wedding date for August.

And that’s it. The end. And what is more aggravating is that the epilogue here is one page long and focuses on how miserable Catherine was as a teenager, and how Elizabeth had her under her thumb. One sentence: “Catherine was proclaimed empress and reigned for thirty-four years.” And even in the historical note there’s only three pages about what she did! Catherine was one of the most powerful rulers Russia had, and there is SO much there, and it’s just skimmed over! In like three pages! I know that this is the last book in the series (well, “series,” but “only theoretically-connected set of books” doesn’t scan as well), but come on! This book really feels like they were running out of steam from top to bottom.

Rating: C-/D+. Honestly, for all this, I didn’t hate it. And I can’t explain why! If I was reading this review for the first time, I would have probably thought it sucked! But Kristiana Gregory is a good enough writer that after all my (many) problems with the book, it was somehow, magically, still engaging and entertaining and enjoyable. How? What witchcraft is this? I mean: it’s too short, it has so many things that could have been more fully explored, you don’t get a terrific sense of who Catherine is as a person, there’s a lot of drama that’s just sort of skimmed over, etc. etc. and yet. And yet. And yet it was still good. That’s why I couldn’t go for the D all by itself. I’m much more comfortable with the C-. It’s so strange.

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