Winter Palace ~ Eva Stachniak

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. (No, it didn't) — as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne. (Through the eyes of an orphaned Polish immigrant with nothing to lose actually – and she wasn't that close to the throne either, just one of many of Empress Elizabeth’s spies.)

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
(I would have loved to have read more about this… it was all over in a matter of, well, a few disconnected paragraphs) — 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.
(What dazzling details and intense drama? There was barely any real drama and it was kind of lame and predictable)

Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales.
(Magnificently written? Really? It was full of choppy, short, fragmented sentences and paragraphs that did not flow from one to another.)

☆☆½ --- ☆☆☆ 

This book would.not.end. It honestly took me forever to get through this novel. I have been agonizing over what rating I should give this book . . . It is somewhere between 2 ½ stars and 3 stars . . . I’m being generous with the 3 stars because there were some decent chunks of the novel amongst the rubble.

I found at times, well a lot of the time, that the story just seemed to drag on and on and on . . . there were times where I found my mind wandering away from the story and I would end up rereading parts of the novel multiple times. I could not finish this book fast enough, which is really disappointing because it really wasn’t the story itself (well, not entirely) but more so the way that it was written. The writing was choppy and full of short, fragmented sentences and paragraphs that did not flow.

The title was misleading as the story really wasn’t about Catherine the Great, at least not how I expected it to be. Though the subtitle of the novel is “a novel of Catherine the Great”, it is really a novel about a young Polish immigrant named Barbara (or Varvara in Russian), the daughter of a bookbinder who is left in the care of Empress Elizabeth’s court in the Winter Palace once her father dies. Varvara is enlisted as a “tongue” or spy for Empress Elizabeth and is to report back to her about the new Grand Duchess Catherine.

Yes, Catherine the Great is part of the novel, though a very small part – she does not become Catherine the Great until the very end of the novel, before that she was simply Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst and the Grand Duchess Catherine. I was really hoping for a novel that revolved around Catherine as the Empress of Russia, or at the very least a novel about her time in Russia. This was neither of those. It seemed like Catherine played a supporting role to Varvara who was at the centre of the story.

The story is told in the first person – I don’t have a problem with this but when the story is told in the first person from a secondary character I find that you lose some of the closeness to the characters and the intimacy of the plot, especially if your character leaves the main action, as it is in the case of The Winter Palace as Varvara is banished from court for seven years and she is married off so the story’s focus deviates from the Russian court to her family life. As a result we hear about Catherine’s actions (who is suppose to be the main character) from tertiary sources – letters, rumours, reports all of which are passed on to Varvara. If this is supposed to be a novel about Catherine the Great, shouldn’t it be her with whom we sympathize and suffer with and not with a secondary character? Speaking of the characters, they fell flat and were never fully developed. I would have loved to have experienced more of Catherine’s character in the novel.

Definitely a disappointment, I had such high hopes for this novel. I probably will not reread this book and unfortunately it is not one that I would highly recommend. 

Another issue, and this isn’t the author’s fault but rather the publishers . . . the cover image is not even of Catherine the Great nor Empress Elizabeth but rather of Maria Theresa of Austria. Come on now, with all of the pictures out there of Catherine the Great they couldn’t choose one of those?

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