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From the moment the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst agreed to marry the heir to the Russian throne, she was mired in a quicksand of intrigue. Precociously intelligent, self-confident, and attractive but with a stubborn, wayward streak, Sophia withstood a degree of emotional battering that would have broken a weaker spirit until at last she emerged, trium From the moment the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst agreed to marry the heir to the Russian throne, she was mired in a quicksand of intrigue. Precociously intelligent, self-confident, and attractive but with a stubborn, wayward streak, Sophia withstood a degree of emotional battering that would have broken a weaker spirit until at last she emerged, triumphant over her many enemies, as Empress Catherine II of Russia. Her achievements as empress were prodigious. She brought vast new lands under Russian rule. She raised the prestige of Russia in Europe. She began the process of imposing legal and political order on the chaos she inherited from her predecessors. Yet few historical figures have been so enthusiastically vilified as Catherine the Great. Whispers that she had ordered her husband's murder grew to murmurs that she was an immoral woman and finally to shouts that she was a depraved, lust-crazed nymphomaniac. With deft mastery of historical narrative and an unsurpassed ability to make the past live again, Carolly Erickson uncovers the real woman behind the tarnished image—an indomitable, feisty, often visionary ruler who, in an age of caveats and constraints, blithely went her own way. Great Catherine reveals the complexities of this great ruler's nature, her craving for love, her insecurities, the inevitable sorrows and disappointments of a strong empress who dared not share her power with any man yet longed to be led and guided by a loving consort. Great Catherine is a fresh portrait of an infamous historical figure, one that reveals how Catherine's flawed triumph guaranteed her posthumous fame and enhanced the might and renown of Russia for generations to come.


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From the moment the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst agreed to marry the heir to the Russian throne, she was mired in a quicksand of intrigue. Precociously intelligent, self-confident, and attractive but with a stubborn, wayward streak, Sophia withstood a degree of emotional battering that would have broken a weaker spirit until at last she emerged, trium From the moment the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst agreed to marry the heir to the Russian throne, she was mired in a quicksand of intrigue. Precociously intelligent, self-confident, and attractive but with a stubborn, wayward streak, Sophia withstood a degree of emotional battering that would have broken a weaker spirit until at last she emerged, triumphant over her many enemies, as Empress Catherine II of Russia. Her achievements as empress were prodigious. She brought vast new lands under Russian rule. She raised the prestige of Russia in Europe. She began the process of imposing legal and political order on the chaos she inherited from her predecessors. Yet few historical figures have been so enthusiastically vilified as Catherine the Great. Whispers that she had ordered her husband's murder grew to murmurs that she was an immoral woman and finally to shouts that she was a depraved, lust-crazed nymphomaniac. With deft mastery of historical narrative and an unsurpassed ability to make the past live again, Carolly Erickson uncovers the real woman behind the tarnished image—an indomitable, feisty, often visionary ruler who, in an age of caveats and constraints, blithely went her own way. Great Catherine reveals the complexities of this great ruler's nature, her craving for love, her insecurities, the inevitable sorrows and disappointments of a strong empress who dared not share her power with any man yet longed to be led and guided by a loving consort. Great Catherine is a fresh portrait of an infamous historical figure, one that reveals how Catherine's flawed triumph guaranteed her posthumous fame and enhanced the might and renown of Russia for generations to come.

30 review for Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. (view spoiler)[ The rating, any status updates, and those bookshelves, indicate my feelings for this book. (hide spoiler)] (view spoiler)[ The rating, any status updates, and those bookshelves, indicate my feelings for this book. (hide spoiler)]

  2. 4 out of 5

    Alanna Smith

    I enjoyed this book a lot, but I have to admit that the author seemed to grow bored with the subject matter by the end, which meant that I did, too. The first half I could barely put down; it really is fascinating how the rather unremarkable (that is to say, precocious, but not pretty) Princess Sophie of Germany managed to rise to become the Empress of Russia. But once she finally came into power, it seemed like the best of the story was over, and while she was a good ruler, I didn't feel she wa I enjoyed this book a lot, but I have to admit that the author seemed to grow bored with the subject matter by the end, which meant that I did, too. The first half I could barely put down; it really is fascinating how the rather unremarkable (that is to say, precocious, but not pretty) Princess Sophie of Germany managed to rise to become the Empress of Russia. But once she finally came into power, it seemed like the best of the story was over, and while she was a good ruler, I didn't feel she was actually "great" and in many ways her life was really quite sad. The last few pages I felt like the author was crawling across the finish line, glad to be done with it all. I would have preferred a little more triumph, or perhaps a summary of where Catherine the Great stands in history from today's perspective. Something more, at least. One last note-- I was disappointed that there were no footnotes at all. Erickson relied on plenty of quotes from letters and Catherine's own memoirs, but without any references as to where these quotes actually came from I had a hard time taking this as seriously as it perhaps deserves. Maybe I'm just a snob here, but I want footnotes!!!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    Largely a very interesting book, I found it a little heavy on the details of Catherine's life during the early years of her marriage and very light on details when it came to her actual years of reign. I thought this was a shame not because her early years were boring, but because I would have liked to have learned more about why she earned the title "great." As it was described by the author, it didn't seem like she did much to deserve the nickname. Still, all-in-all an enjoyable read with easy, Largely a very interesting book, I found it a little heavy on the details of Catherine's life during the early years of her marriage and very light on details when it came to her actual years of reign. I thought this was a shame not because her early years were boring, but because I would have liked to have learned more about why she earned the title "great." As it was described by the author, it didn't seem like she did much to deserve the nickname. Still, all-in-all an enjoyable read with easy, accessible language.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    What an awe-inspiring story. I knew nothing about Catherine when I picked up the book. While the storytelling can be about as juicy as drinking a glass of sand, the story itself compelled me forward. Admittedly, I've been reading a lot of historical fiction and the lack of dialog took getting used to. The author, whose excellent historical fiction work about Marie Antoinette was amazing, is a well-regarded historian and I found the book to be well sourced and credible.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    I really liked it, especially up until she gets married. Should have been called "Young Catherine" because it's mostly all about the pre-Empress times, drawn from her early memoirs. Easy reading. Love the cover of the book and even the special letters used for the title, hand-crafted by Dia Calhoun, a lettering artist."

  6. 4 out of 5

    Asia Burnett

    I really didn't know anything about Russian history beyond the names: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, etc. And this book, while flawed, was deeply fascinating. I loved learning about Catherine and life in Russia in the 1700s. The descriptions of the thousands of gowns of Catherine's predecessor, or how a whole road was built just for Empress Elizabeth to get oranges. It's crazy to think that neither Catherine or her (one-time) husband Peter III were Russian, but successi I really didn't know anything about Russian history beyond the names: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, etc. And this book, while flawed, was deeply fascinating. I loved learning about Catherine and life in Russia in the 1700s. The descriptions of the thousands of gowns of Catherine's predecessor, or how a whole road was built just for Empress Elizabeth to get oranges. It's crazy to think that neither Catherine or her (one-time) husband Peter III were Russian, but succession was just super weird that way. The problems: The book can jump around at times and be hard to follow. In one page it says Catherine was grateful not to be pregnant; in the next page she's about to give birth. The book will mention one of the countless courtiers one time and then their name will reappear 100 pages later with little to no context. So you're flipping back to try to figure out "which was this one again?". While entertaining, there are also no footnotes, so it's hard to know what's historical fact and what the author might be embellishing. But, all in all, I feel like I learned a lot and have a lot of new dinner party anecdotes. Can't wait to read Catherine the Great's actual memoirs now (she was pretty prolific about her early life). P.S. I also learned a new word that seems to be a favorite of the author: perfidy. The more you know.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    As always Carolly Erickson provides a well written and convincing portrait in words of the person who is the subject of her history - in this case Catherine the Great of Russia. Catherine had the sort of life fantasy novels use as a background. She rose from being an obscure German princess with next to no prospects for marriage to eventually become empress in her own right of an empire. Not since the rise of Empress Theodora in old Byzantium had a consort risen so fast and high under her own qu As always Carolly Erickson provides a well written and convincing portrait in words of the person who is the subject of her history - in this case Catherine the Great of Russia. Catherine had the sort of life fantasy novels use as a background. She rose from being an obscure German princess with next to no prospects for marriage to eventually become empress in her own right of an empire. Not since the rise of Empress Theodora in old Byzantium had a consort risen so fast and high under her own qualities. How do you fit a life like Catherine's into 381 pages? By leaving a lot out I'm afraid. Catherine's zest for building both buildings and art collections was only briefly brushed upon and this book does a much better job of covering her life while she was Grand Duchess than when she was Empress. Having said that this book is still a great introduction to her life if you haven't read much about her before (it's not my first book on the subject though it's been many years) and as always Erickson writes a very easy to digest book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    hdhgdfh

    Delve into Russia’s most important ruler’s life of Catherine the Great. Read first hand the twist and turns of her life. Discover her conflicts on her way to the throne. This book is better than any of the Game of Thrones books. When you read this book, you’ll agree too. Instead of reading about a fictional soap opera, you can read about a real-life one, as well learn about some history, and it will also further your understanding of the world. For example, if you read this book, you can have a Delve into Russia’s most important ruler’s life of Catherine the Great. Read first hand the twist and turns of her life. Discover her conflicts on her way to the throne. This book is better than any of the Game of Thrones books. When you read this book, you’ll agree too. Instead of reading about a fictional soap opera, you can read about a real-life one, as well learn about some history, and it will also further your understanding of the world. For example, if you read this book, you can have a better understanding of why the Russo-Turkish war happened. This book is also great because of its accuracy. For example, the book included first-hand accounts from Catherine the Great herself, as well as other first-hand accounts, which adds to the historical accuracy of the book. What are you waiting for?

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I was interested in reading about Catherine since she played a role in my family's history. In the late 1700s early 1800s, Catherine invited Mennonites to come to the Ukraine to drain the swamps and retool the land into farming communities. In exchange, she offered religious freedom. This was a boon to the struggling, persecuted sect. After reading the book, I have to chuckle - the woman that "saved" my pios ancestors was, in reality, quite the nymphomaniac. Though steeped in complex history, Er I was interested in reading about Catherine since she played a role in my family's history. In the late 1700s early 1800s, Catherine invited Mennonites to come to the Ukraine to drain the swamps and retool the land into farming communities. In exchange, she offered religious freedom. This was a boon to the struggling, persecuted sect. After reading the book, I have to chuckle - the woman that "saved" my pios ancestors was, in reality, quite the nymphomaniac. Though steeped in complex history, Erickson has successfully produced a very readable account. Some of the information is repetitive, but not to distraction. I was most impressed with the her task of governing such a large and diverse area. During those years, Russia was sparsely populated and polarized by warring factions. Communication was severly limited. So how did she get so much accomplished? Read and learn.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    1996 review A very readable biography of Catherine the Great, which provides a much [needed] rehabilitated picture of an "exceptionally benevolent" ruler--counter to the monstrosity in accounts one usually hears. Prior to reading this, I had only the foggiest idea of her--and the idea makes sense --the title "the Great" is not bestowed lightly [at least not on women!] It is evident that the author much admires her. Great emphasis is placed on Catherine's earlier years, before she becomes Empress, 1996 review A very readable biography of Catherine the Great, which provides a much [needed] rehabilitated picture of an "exceptionally benevolent" ruler--counter to the monstrosity in accounts one usually hears. Prior to reading this, I had only the foggiest idea of her--and the idea makes sense --the title "the Great" is not bestowed lightly [at least not on women!] It is evident that the author much admires her. Great emphasis is placed on Catherine's earlier years, before she becomes Empress, and the reason for this out to be the sources--Catherine wrote her memoirs seven times but always stopped [the narrative] before she became Empress.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mv

    I thoroughly enjoy historical books, especially pre 20th century. I had very little previous knowledge of Catherine the Great. I think this book provides an encompassing look into her life. Carolly Erickson references Catherine's personal memoirs as well as those of others intermixed with a bit of personal speculation. I would put her on level with Alison Weir in her ability to provide an enjoyable, insightful and informative listen/read. Davina Porter, as always, put forth a wonderful narration I thoroughly enjoy historical books, especially pre 20th century. I had very little previous knowledge of Catherine the Great. I think this book provides an encompassing look into her life. Carolly Erickson references Catherine's personal memoirs as well as those of others intermixed with a bit of personal speculation. I would put her on level with Alison Weir in her ability to provide an enjoyable, insightful and informative listen/read. Davina Porter, as always, put forth a wonderful narration. She is one of my favorites.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carol Chapin

    This book gave me some needed (?!) background on this Russian historical figure - my granddaughter had more general knowledge of Catherine than I did. But I would have appreciated more detail about the Russia of her time. The book focused on Catherine’s personal relationships. I found the “palace intrigues” interesting – but what a cold, cruel life she had to live (although undoubtedly better than the serfs). I would have liked this book to be more like “Peter the Great” by Robert Massie. Postsc This book gave me some needed (?!) background on this Russian historical figure - my granddaughter had more general knowledge of Catherine than I did. But I would have appreciated more detail about the Russia of her time. The book focused on Catherine’s personal relationships. I found the “palace intrigues” interesting – but what a cold, cruel life she had to live (although undoubtedly better than the serfs). I would have liked this book to be more like “Peter the Great” by Robert Massie. Postscript: I see that Massie wrote a book about Catherine as well. Something to read later.

  13. 5 out of 5

    bitten

    This was a great, quick read, but it got a bit muddled at the end. I had a hard time keeping track of what was happening when, which might have been an issue only I had--I will freely admit I hate when nonfiction starts linear and then there are three chapters about different things happening in the same five years, and then it's a decade later. It's more of a pet peeve than a dig on the writing.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jodi

    As a general, social history, Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, is an excellent start for the lay reader. Erickson adds many tantalizing stories to liven up her narrative. Documentation is skimpy but this reviewer is guessing that Erickson did not want to put off general readers.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    The most interesting thing I learned about Catherine the Great is that she apparently wrote many autobiographies, each with evolving facts and history... early propaganda and media control? A fascinating, though kinda scary woman-- likely she is a product of her times and circumstances.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ly Ngo

    My first non-fiction book in a long time. The narration and pacing was very well done, great research went into the story to tie major event together and create realistic portrayals of the characters.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Judy Masters

    Always interesting to hear a version of history. I really knew nothing about Catherine the Great. I feel like the book covered her life and eccentricities pretty well. She was a powerful woman that brought much to the Russian people.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Excellent book about Catherine the Great & about the Russia she lived in & ruled. Excellent book about Catherine the Great & about the Russia she lived in & ruled.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Very comprehensive, everything you could ever want to know about this complex woman's life. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    Most of this book was absolutely great, but it seemed like the author stopped caring when it got 2/3s in, which is very unfortunate.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Monica St. Dennis

    Super interesting.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Maru

    Good writing, but a little rushed at the end.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    I really enjoyed this book. It was very readable and I felt that I got to know this famous woman at least a bit.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mordsith Cutler

    Loved it. I loved this story so much

  25. 5 out of 5

    Wendy Lestina

    Here's what I got from this book, which I doggedly read until the very last page: Russian history deserves better. So, I have purchased Robert K. Massie's bio, "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman," and also the historical novel, "The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak. The latter, though fiction, promises to offer a well-written and well-research view into the woman and the era. This book was so haphazardly organized and the writing so cliche-ridden the reader's journey was akin to traveling Here's what I got from this book, which I doggedly read until the very last page: Russian history deserves better. So, I have purchased Robert K. Massie's bio, "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman," and also the historical novel, "The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak. The latter, though fiction, promises to offer a well-written and well-research view into the woman and the era. This book was so haphazardly organized and the writing so cliche-ridden the reader's journey was akin to traveling without a map through a vast landscape of endless mud.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Wilson-McDougle

    The following lines open Great Catherine, "The small, rather plain little four-year-old girl walked up to the king and reached up to tug at his jacket. She had been taught to kiss the garments of older people, as a sign of reverence, but the stout, red-faced man who watched her approach with a severe expression was wearing a jacket that was too short, and this made it difficult for her to do what her mother had ordered (1)." This fearless child of four simply wanted why the king's shirt was too The following lines open Great Catherine, "The small, rather plain little four-year-old girl walked up to the king and reached up to tug at his jacket. She had been taught to kiss the garments of older people, as a sign of reverence, but the stout, red-faced man who watched her approach with a severe expression was wearing a jacket that was too short, and this made it difficult for her to do what her mother had ordered (1)." This fearless child of four simply wanted why the king's shirt was too short. Everyone in the Court feared the king's reply, especially Sophia's mother, the young Princess Johanna. The king's reply was a good-hearted laugh. Young Sophia was precocious, fearlesss, hungry for knowledge, and self-confident. She lacked the doting love from her mother who was busy raising her brother, Whilhem, who was physically disabled. Whenever Sophia questioned her teacher on subjects, he requested Babette to beat her. The way Sophia questioned his authority of learning irritated him greatly. During Sophia's time, young girls did not need education to become wives. At age fourteen, Sophia's life changed drastically. An invitation was accepted for Johanna and Sophia to travel to Russia for a marriage invitation for Sophia. The two made the long and tiring journey. Empress Elizabeth turned to be a jealous and spiteful woman. Ivan IV had been the righteous heir to the throne and she had had him murdered as a young boy. When the duo reached the palace, Sophia became sick soon after. Empress Elizabeth took care of Sophia and complicated the union between mother and daughter worse. Princess Johanna was eventually sent to Siberia. The union between Emporer Peter I and Catherine II (Sophia) was not magical where sparks flew all the time. It was a miserable union for Catherine II who had to watch her husband have secret unions with her chamber women. He was drinking all the time, loud, rude, obnoxious, and worse, impotent. Empress Elizabeth had wanted a male heir from Catherine II before her death. After having an affair with the first man, there a few heart-breaking miscarriages. Catherine II gave birth to a health baby who Empress Elizabeth snatched up and named Paul I. Catherine II did not get to partake in any celebrations for her son. Since Empress Elizabeth was still at the fertile age, she was seen by some as Paul I's mother. I could not wait to read more of this book in the evenings. I am impressed by Carrolly Erickson's thorough research of Catherine II's life and reign. Sophia was forced to give up so much in order to become the Great Catherine II. Since that title displeased Her Majesty, perhaps Lady Catherine II would have more pleasing. God be with Lady Catherine II.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kristi Richardson

    “You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.” I recently watched the “Young Catherine” movie with Julia Ormond and was intrigued to learn more about this enigmatic ruler. She came from a very small country where her father was a military man and her mother a minor noble. She was not beautiful but was definitely intelligent and willful. The story of her life from nobody to Empress of Russ “You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.” I recently watched the “Young Catherine” movie with Julia Ormond and was intrigued to learn more about this enigmatic ruler. She came from a very small country where her father was a military man and her mother a minor noble. She was not beautiful but was definitely intelligent and willful. The story of her life from nobody to Empress of Russia is interesting and I found it extremely moving. Her early years in Russia were stressful because when she married the Grand Duke Peter, she discovered he was very likely mentally ill and unstable. She knew she would eventually have to make a decision on Peter but for the most part put up with his eccentricities. There were many times in her life she had to defend her actions to the Empress Elizabeth, who must have known that this young woman was the savior of the Russian people. Catherine was a very sexual person married to an unsexual man. She began taking lovers early on and was always happier with a man at her side. She was a very modern woman. I enjoyed the life of this very complicated woman. She was at times very reasonable and reassuring to her people and other times very dictatorial and shrill. She tried to institute many laws to help codify the rules but met with various problems from the wealthy class. I enjoyed this story and look forward to more works from this author.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Allison

    I had wanted to learn more about Catherine the Great (a moniker she shunned during her life), and this fit the bill. I liked the details about the personalities surrounding Catherine, and the court intrigues, and how horrible it was to be a poor person (being rich was no picnic, either) living in Russia in the 18th century. Not to mention a woman... Did you know that during this time women (wives) could be punished by their husbands for any infraction by being beaten mercilessly, sent to a conve I had wanted to learn more about Catherine the Great (a moniker she shunned during her life), and this fit the bill. I liked the details about the personalities surrounding Catherine, and the court intrigues, and how horrible it was to be a poor person (being rich was no picnic, either) living in Russia in the 18th century. Not to mention a woman... Did you know that during this time women (wives) could be punished by their husbands for any infraction by being beaten mercilessly, sent to a convent (invisibilized) for the rest of their lives or, as a special treat, by having their noses cut off? And if the infraction was especially severe, the punishment was to bury the woman up to her neck and let her die of starvation/thirst. These were all relatively commonplace (although, being Russia, the burying alive could only have happened in the short summer months...) However, for a non-fiction book, this seemed to have a suspicious amount of details. The author used the phrase "She must've thought..." far, far too often for my comfort. Although, that did add a certain amount of readability. Also, the first 2/3 of the book only cover her life up to coronation. Seemed like the last third was rushed. And, no, Catherine never *&%#ed a horse, in case that's all you've ever heard about her.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Laura Edwards

    An interesting and enjoyable read. More than half of the book focuses on Catherine's life before she becomes empress which gives the reader good insight into her character. I would like to become better acquainted with her life during her reign, however, and look forward to reading the biography by Robert Massie. I have enjoyed previous biographies written by him (Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra) and I find him to be highly nuanced and informative. At times, the wording of sentences i An interesting and enjoyable read. More than half of the book focuses on Catherine's life before she becomes empress which gives the reader good insight into her character. I would like to become better acquainted with her life during her reign, however, and look forward to reading the biography by Robert Massie. I have enjoyed previous biographies written by him (Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra) and I find him to be highly nuanced and informative. At times, the wording of sentences in Erickson's book is a little awkward. I do think this book might have received a higher rating from me (4 instead of 3) because I've not yet read a book solely focused on Catherine before. She is such a fascinating subject, I'm not sure if it was the subject matter as much, or more so, than the author which held my rapt attention. I'm curious to see if my opinion will change after reading the Massie book. All in all, I think this is a good introduction to Catherine the Great and I'm excited to read further about her life and reign.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" asks: "why can't a woman be more like a man?" This book in many ways shows a woman can be more like a man. Unfortunately, when they are they are often condemned and aspersions cast upon them. Cleopatra found that what was considered strategy in a man was considered manipulation in a woman. Catherine found much the same. Both women learned the language spoken by the common people of their country. Both women had affairs. For most of history male rulers we Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" asks: "why can't a woman be more like a man?" This book in many ways shows a woman can be more like a man. Unfortunately, when they are they are often condemned and aspersions cast upon them. Cleopatra found that what was considered strategy in a man was considered manipulation in a woman. Catherine found much the same. Both women learned the language spoken by the common people of their country. Both women had affairs. For most of history male rulers were expected to have sexual relations with numerous women, usually a lot younger than themselves, and often maintaining several mistresses at one time, in addition to frequenting brothels. However, it was extremely unbecoming for female rulers to take younger men into their boudoir. This is a relatively quick, easily read narrative that I enjoyed immensely.

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