I started this book knowing approximately nothing about Catherine II, and now thanks to it I know a lot about her. I appreciated the mix of information about political and foreign affairs as well as personal details about the daily lives, fears, and aspirations of the main players. It isn't just a book about empresses, kings, and princes, it is also a book about people.
So, why not five stars? There are a couple of reasons:
1) Typos! I hope this has been mostly fixed in later editions but the edition I read had enough typos that it became distracting. It's a long book, but surely someone could have read through it once to make sure everybody's name was spelled correctly?
2) No family trees. There are several maps, but no family trees, and in a book about European royalty I consider this a must. Everybody is marrying everyone else and having kids with so-and-so's sister's' aunt's cousin, and it gets confusing.
3) Tangential information. There is a whole chapter about the horrors of the French Revolution, which I guess is needed for context to explain Catherine's subsequent reactions, but you know what I didn't need to read? A page and a half about whether the head remains alive after being guillotined.
4) It really burned my waffles that Massie effectively blamed Catherine for how Peter III treated her in their marriage. He attributes their falling out to her less-than-thrilled reaction to seeing Peter scarred and disfigured after a bout with smallpox. Massie says that in that moment, Catherine failed him. Puh-lease. First of all, she's a teenager at the time, so cut her some slack. Second of all, since when does that justify not having sex for nine years and constantly belittling someone? There was a lot more going on in that marriage than just that one episode; Massie describes all these problems, but still comes back to that episode as a causative factor, when really, the problem is Peter needed to get over himself (and maybe stop playing with toy soldiers so darn much).