Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Bantam Books
October 2012
Format: Paperback, 

First line: The spies you learn about are either those who get exposed or those who reveal themselves.

From the back cover: 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 loftier, more dangerous ambitions. 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. 

My thoughts: Ever since having to write a paper on her in a college history class, I've been intrigued by Catherine the Great. Sadly, though, I haven't read much about her since then, so you can imagine my excitement when last year, there were a few books released about her.

The Winter Palace tells the story of Catherine the Great's rise to power.  But it's the point of view that, in my mind, makes the story. It's told from the perspective of Varvara Nikolayevna, a young Polish orphan who is put in Empress Elizabeth's care after her father dies. Trained as a spy for Elizabeth, Varvara's viewpoint allows us to witness not just the story of how Princess Sophie became Empress Catherine; it also shows us much of the reign of Empress Elizabeth and the Russian court in the eighteenth century. 

Fiercely loyal to Sophie while still faithfully serving the Empress Elizabeth, Varvara is used by both of her mistresses, and other monarchs of the court to their own selfish means. She must use her wits and skills that she hones over years of service to the royals to stay afloat in a world of intrigue and ever increasing suspense.

The Winter Palace is a mesmerizing read of the friendship that develops between two outsiders of the Russian court, one who later goes on to rule. As far as being a book about Catherine the Great, it details the seventeen years during which Sophie waited and learned all she could in order to prepare herself for taking the throne. We also see how she endured tremendous hardship in her personal life, having everybody who she loved taken away from her. Her first and second-born children were taken from her at birth before she even had a chance to hold them, and others died before they even reached a year.

I enjoyed this book and while sadly I admit that I do not know too much about Russian history, I am left wanting to read more. I want to read more about Empress Elizabeth and certainly more about Catherine the Great's reign. I will definitely be keeping my eyes out for Eva Stachniak's next book, The Empire of Night, which is going to be told from Catherine the Great's perspective and will cover her whole life, focusing on her 34 years in power. 

Have you read anything about either Catherine the Great or Empress Elizabeth?

(I purchased this book.) 
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10 comments

  1. Glad to see that you enjoyed this one. This book also left me hungering for more information about Russian history. It is an area of history that I also know little about but I hope to remedy that soon. Great review!! I also can't wait for the next one.

    Kimberlee
    www.girllostinabook.com

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    1. Did you found any good books on Russian history yet? If you did, please let me know!

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  2. I read Evelyn Anthony's Imperial Highness about Catherine the Great's journey to becoming empress last year and thought it was pretty good.

    It does surprise me that there isn't more written about her so I am glad to hear that this author will be writing about her soon

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    1. I'll have to look for that one...thanks for letting me know about it.

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  3. I can't wait for the next book to come out! This was one of my favorite reads last year!

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    1. It's one of my favorite reads so far this year!

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  4. I recommend Robert K. Massie's biography of her. I've also read her own autobiography; I took a Russian history in college that was super interesting and I've had an interest in Catherine since then.

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    1. I have the Massie book on my shelf...just need to find time to read it. I'll have to look for her autobiography. Thanks for the suggestions!

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  5. I just finished this! I thought it was great! Now I want to read more about Catherine when she was ruling.

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  6. I also highly recommend Massie's book. It's comprehensive and lively. I reviewed it here: http://faithljustice.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/book-review-catherine-the-great/ I've put The Winter Palace on my TBR list. Thanks for the review!

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