Rated of 5
Before Catherine Became "The Great"
Ms. Strachniak writes of the early years of Catherine the Great before ascension to the position of Empress of Russia.
Without knowing much about Russian history in the early to mid-1700s, a reader is compelled to rely on Stachniak's historical research for a believable fictional account of pre-"Catherine the Great" Russia. The author cleverly uses the invention of a female spy in the court of Empress Elizabeth as the historian for Catherine the Great's evolution from Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst to Empress Catherine II of Russia. Starchniak characterizes Catherine's entry into Russia through betrothal to Peter III, the Grand Duke, Empress Elizabeth's nephew and heir of Peter the Great.
Peter III is characterized by Strachniak as an effete leader that contracted small pox as a child and consequently suffered facial disfigurement. With little physical attraction and a possible medical inhibition, Peter III may have delayed conjugal consummation of marriage to Catherine. Empress Elizabeth expected Catherine to bare a male heir to the throne. When it appears that Peter III is not able to meet that expectation, Empress Elizabeth creates a circumstance for Catherine to take a lover.
Interest in "The Winter Palace" is kindled by a fictional character that becomes a spy for the Chancellor as Catherine is welcomed to Russia. Another spark is created with the characterization of Empress Elizabeth as a serial lover.
However, the kindled fire never comes to a blaze. Some sparks of believability and fire are in the relationship of the spy to her daughter; a few more sparks are revealed in the evolution of Catherine the Great from Princess to Empress but no flames burst forth to show the real hardness of Catherine the Great that must have been required for her to become whom she did.
Stachniak shows the reality of evolving mentorships and their eventual collapse that make the demise of the Chancellor believable but more could have been made of his decline.
“The Winter Palace” has the basis for a great story but it is not there in its current form.
[this review was edited to remove plot spoilers]