Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace
by Eva Stachniak
ISBN 9780553808124
444 pages
Release Date: January 10, 2012
Available for purchase from
Why did you choose this book? I enjoy historical fiction and recently developed an interest in Russian history 
When did you read this book? December 2011
Who should read this book? readers of historical fiction, Russian history
Here is a synopsis of ‘The Winter Palace' from Goodreads, where it rates 3.71 stars.
Source: advanced copy from NetGalley
From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.
Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.
What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power. 
With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia. 
Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales.
My Review 
I did enjoy this book, but I thought the title was a little misleading. The book was not centered around Catherine the Great, and in fact, didn’t cover much of her reign over Russia. The story is really told by a palace servant and most of the story takes place during the reign of Empress Elizabeth. 
Barbara is the daughter of a Polish book binder who has brought his family to Russia. The Empress takes note of him when he is able to restore a treasured book. When Barbara’s mother dies, his father asks the Empress to look after his daughter if something should happen to him; he dies shortly thereafter. Barbara is brought to the palace as a lowly servant, and works her way up to become a spy for the Chancellor and the Empress. The Empress also renames her the more Russian, Varvara. Varvara befriends Sophia, the young princess brought to the palace to become the bride of the Grand Duke Peter, nephew of the Empress. Peter is being groomed as the future ruler. Sophia later takes the name Catherine. The story is told through the eyes of Barbara/Varvara and follows the years as Elizabeth rules Russia, and as the reigns of Peter and Catherine follow. But in addition to the story of Catherine, much of the story involves Varvara's personal life and her marriage and motherhood.
I read this book hoping to learn a bit about Russia during this period, and I did. But I sensed the history here is embellished and ‘shaped’ to fit the story. I’m not sure I really have an accurate idea of Russia, and in particular, Catherine and Peter. However it did motivate me to look Catherine up on the internet to read a bit more, so it did serve as an introduction to the period. I look forward to reading more about this era.  The Winter Palace is good read if you enjoy historical fiction.

My Rating:  ★★★ 3 Stars

1 comment:

  1. I'm hopeful that the next book in the series will cover a little more about Catherine's actual reign. I did like seeing her as a younger person in this book though, especially when you consider how powerful she became!!!