The Emperor’s Barber

Written by Graham Wade
Review by B. J. Sedlock

Kutaissa, an orphaned Turk forced into the Ottoman army, is captured by Russians, where his medical skills learned as a barber eventually bring him to the attention of Grand Duke Paul, son of Catherine the Great. Paul takes Kutaissa as his barber/valet, giving him a more Russian name, Kutaissov.

Kutaissov proves adept at court intrigue, eventually promoted to Count after Paul becomes Czar. But Kutaissov pays for Paul’s favors with kicks and blows from the volatile, possibly mad, Czar. When unrest among the nobles leads to an abdication plot, Kutaissov is in danger of being labeled a conspirator.

This is the type of historical fiction I most enjoy, straightforward narrative about a time and place I didn’t know much about. The story certainly enlightened me on Russian court life in the late 1700s. Wade warns readers in an historical note that Kutaissov is difficult to like. But Kutaissov gains some sympathy as a person who does what he must to survive. Some stilted language passages are a bit off-putting: “As was his prerogative, he detained her for several more dances, a phenomenon which did not pass unobserved by a number of people present.” Recommended.