I came across The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak while browsing a Goodreads list of new historical fiction. Even though it had some strong praise from the Washington Post and others, the cover was a bit bodice-ripper looking for me and I almost passed it up. But I’m glad I did not.
Stachniak tells the story of the rise of Catherine, who becomes Great, through the eyes of Varvara, a young ward of Empress Elizabeth. Varvara comes to live at court as an orphan and is recruited by the Russian Chancellor to become a “tongue” or a spy. Her job is to be the eyes and ears for Empress Elizabeth in the large and unruly court that surrounds her. When Catherine arrives to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, and subsequently is used and abused (by everyone), Varvara allies herself with the young (future) Grand Duchess.
Stachniak descriptions of the court are well-written and imaginable. In some historical fiction works, the research seems laid on top of the narrative without the two meshing well. Stachniak interweaves what is obviously a tremendous amount of research with a strong and engaging tale. She does this not only with the chronological history but also the “set” in St. Petersburg. During the story, the palace is undergoing renovations that will make it into the grand Winter Palace. Her narrative makes it easy to imagine their surroundings.
I think the book does not have the correct title though as in many ways it is more about the life of Empress Elizabeth than Catherine. Because it is focused on Catherine’s early years and because it takes a really long time for her to become Empress, at the close of the book I felt I knew more about Elizabeth as a character than I did Catherine. I even know the name of Elizabeth’s cats. This may partly be intentional because the story is told from Varvara’s perspective and Varvara is ultimately burnt by her benefactress. In other words, we only know as much as Varvara does and in the end she doesn’t seem to know enough about Catherine and the power of court intrigue.
If you like historical fiction, this one is a keeper. Intrigue, power, sex, and … cats, lots of cats.
PS: Just noticed that it is listed on Goodreads as Catherine #1. Oh dear, another trilogy …