Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Sunday, January 8, 2012
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Untitled #1
Pages: 464 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: expected January 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5 

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. 

I'm still a little puzzled by The Winter Palace, even about three weeks after finishing it. It purports itself to be a novel revolving around the epic story of Catherine the Great, known originally as Sophie, during her first years in the Russian, and Romanov, court.  What is perplexing is that the story is about Catherine, but not told from her perspective and even as Sophie, the character is absent for much of the narrative. Additionally, the main power player and the most eye-catching character is not Catherine, even when she comes to power later on, but the Empress preceding her on the throne: Elizaveta Petrovna. "A Tale of Catherine the Great" just doesn't seem to gel with the story within the cover. I do wish the novel had actually been from the view of Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt-Zerbst, and not her tongue or gazette Barbara, though that is no fault of the former's. I was just always more interested in the real, recreated personages than fabricated one which was the most important. It's just a shame that Catherine was outshone by adoptive mother of her weakling, Prussian-loving husband.

That is not to say I didn't like Barbara, or as she's usually called in the book Varvara Nikolayevna. With a title of "ward of the crown" for the Empress Elizabeth, Varvara is little more than a beggar or an orphan with a glorified title. And in the Court of Peter the Great's daughter, "Life is a game and every player is cheating."  As a hidden spy, a "tongue", a "gazette", she is hard-edged and mercenary, interfering only when she knows she won't be detected. It's easy to feel sympathy for the young Polish girl in the Russian Court initially: sent there by her father after her mother's death for security, it turned out to be the least secure place her unwitting father could have sent her. She's lonely, ignored, outcast so it's easy, understandable even, that Varvara turns to secrets and whispers in order to assert some control, any kind of power in her powerless life. It's a perfect fit: the little mousy Pole that no one saw stumbles into espionage and thereby becomes important. She may wear off any true likeability the character progresses the harder Varvara becomes, but she is never not interesting to read when at court, scheming.

When Varvara learns she is not as important and powerful and protected as she had assumed, an unwanted marriage is manipulated on her. By crossing someone she ought not have, Varvara learns the only place she is truly happy is at the palace, trying to scheme Sophie, one day to be Catherine, into Elizabeth's and her son Peter's, arms. The book grew quite a bit duller when Varvara is forced from the court and into her marriage as Madame Malinka. The exile seemed to wear on for far too long and it was much duller reading than the high-risk and cutthroat Court life. I loved the tensions and secrets at Elizabeth's, and eventually Peter and Catherine's and then just Catherine's, courts. The book seethed with intrigue and distrust on all sides: from tensions between old name nobles and new name nobles based on ascension due to birth/money or merit, to the obvious distrust between Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter, to the hidden machinations of Varvara and Bestushev. Peter himself is a source of much discontent: from Elizabeth's disapproval of his Prussian affections to Catherine's dismissal of him as worthy, he does not lead a charmed life. He never seems present in the way the strong, if distasteful, woman are. He doesn't react to his wife's vicious rumors, or question the paternity of his heir: I hoped for more from the only male Romanov of the novel. Peter III is much more a tertiary character than anything else, and is interesting for his impact on both his adoptive mother and his wife.

For a novel supposedly about the life of Catherine the Great, but Elizabeth dominates the attention and the interest of The Winter Palace that Varvara doesn't on her rendezvous. With Catherine's situation tenuous (but still somehow not quite suspenseful on the page) as the result seven years of marriage with no heir, Ms. Stachniak posits that Sergei Saltykov was the future tsarevich Paul was the fruit of their illicit union. While history itself remains unclear (Catherine spread rumors it was true but Paul inherited many features from Peter III), the affair itself added a little spice to Catherine's mostly lifeless plotline. Even in the introductory pages of the character, when her own mother's amateurish attempts at Prussian information gathering put Sophie's situation in jeopardy, her storyline lacked urgency and drama. The list of affairs, though I usually detest them in literature, are both historically accurate and serve to show another side to the eventual most powerful woman in Russia. I liked the interplay between Varvara and Catherine: I was never quite sure where the two would go in their forays for information and power, but it was fun to read.

Though not what I expected, The Winter Palace is one of the better historical fictions set in Russia I've come across. If there had been more to Catherine, and to Peter, and less of a exceedingly trying lull midway through, I'd have found it to be in the 4 to 4.5 region of a rating. Some sections just fall short, and with more novels planned and on the way from the author, I have hopes for the fulfillment of my wishes.  I admit I was at first affronted the novel ended so abruptly and so early in Catherine's long-lived and noteworthy life, and at the time it chose to terminate the narrative, but it does make for a decent imperative to read the next book.

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