The Empress Strikes Back
Toronto author Eva Stachniak's new novel The Winter Palace is the story of the rise of the Russian Empress Catherine II, who is better known to history as Catherine the Great.
The novel starts in 1743 and is told from the perspective of Varvara, a bookseller's daughter, who begins work in the Winter Palace in the Royal Wardrobe of the Empress Elizabeth. She soon starts to train as a spy under the guidance of Chancellor Bestuzhev.
When the young princess Sophia arrives from Zerbst as a potential bride for the Grand Duke Peter, the nephew of the Empress and heir to the Russian throne, Varvara's life changes forever. She becomes a friend and later a spy for Sophia, who is renamed Catherine after her wedding to Grand Duke Peter.
We follow the lives of Varvara and Catherine, these unlikely friends, through their marriages and children and watch them survive in the very lethal enviroment of the Winter Palace. The Empress Elizabeth can be quite mercurial, so everyone has to keep their wits about them, and have 'Tongues' (spies) around the palace to keep them informed and prepared for anything that may happen.
As the potential bride, and later wife, of Grand Duke Peter, Catherine's life is very difficult. She needs all her wits, and her friends, to survive and ultimately triumph.
For those who enjoy historical fiction, this is a sumptuous read. The characterization is fantastic. You will feel you really get to know these characters. The novel is quite descriptive, so all the beautiful gowns and rooms of the Winter Palace come into the mind's eye quite easily. The pace is fairly leisurely, but there is enough tension due to the back-stabbing environment of the Winter Palace that it will keep you turning the pages and perhaps reading past your bedtime.
After you finish and wait for Stachniak's second novel to continue the story, you may want to learn more about Catherine the Great. Have a look at her memoirs or one of the biographies written about her.
- The Memoirs of Catherine the Great by Catherine II, Empress of Russia
- Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
- Catherine the Great: A Short History by Isabel De Madariaga