Marie D. (Waretown, NJ)
Life as a royal — a life filled with intrique!
I looked forward to reading The Winter Palace especially since I have wonderful recollections of my visit to St. Petersburg in 2009. Vivid memories of the Winter Palace/Hermitage and Catherine’s “summer” palace at Oranienbaum created a sense of place as I read the book. I could “see” the vista of the Neva River, the Great Perspective Road. My issue with the book, so well crafted and filled with fascinating details, was my need to really know what was fact and what was fiction. The Winter Palace was a great read – now I intend to follow up on the life of Catherine in the history aisle! Are there Varenkas — or “tongues” at work in high places today? I would say very likely. Does power corrupt? You betcha! Ms. Stachniak must tell us “the rest of the story” in a sequel.
Barbara S. (Glen Ellyn, Illinois)
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
THE WINTER PALACE, a novel of Catherine the Great of Russia by Eva Stachniak is a very detailed picture of the Russian Court during the 1700’s. Their lives were harsh, complicated, yet fascinating. The book begins in 1743 when Catherine arrives at the Russian court as a princess from Germany. Eva Stachniak has beautifully described the intrigues of the Russian Court and Catherine’s journey to Empress of Russia. This book was enthralling – cover to cover.
Florence K. (Encino, California)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Winter Palace. The author's clever use of a young Polish commoner. Varvara, to be the eyes and ears of both Empress Elizabeth and her nephew's wife Catherine and to divulge what went on in royal Russian chambers was a fascinating way to describe the spying, the lying, the crying, the betrayals of that time and place. Catherine had to overcome a myriad of obstacles: an unmaternal mother, a loveless marriage to Grand Duke Peter, an indolent and childlike disinterested bridegroom, and pressure to produce an heir. The book was well researched and crisply written. I'm looking forward to reading the author's sequel about the mature Catherine on the Russian throne.
The Winter Palace
If you are a big fan of stories that take place in the European courts of the 1600-1700s, you will enjoy this story of the rise of Catherine the Great of Russia. As with most novels describing court life of this era the story is full of the usual lies, conspiracies, self-serving patrons and courtesans, greed and opulence. It is also the story of two girls growing up together in parallel lives where one becomes an empress and the other her spy and friend. The characters and events of the story were historically accurate but I was disappointed that the author didn't tell the story of the conditions of the Russian citizens at the time of Catherine the Great or some of the accomplishments of her reign. Perhaps the authors upcoming sequel will delve into these areas.
Carolyn D. (Chico, CA)
I don't usually read historical fiction because the history is interesting enough without the fiction that slows the events down. Winter Palace was a pleasant surprise and a good read. There are enough characters to be a real Russian novel, but not too many to keep track of. The narrator's role was well chosen because her job is see and hear everything so she doesn't seem artificially omniscient. Catherine had an amazing life so there is a ton of good stuff to work with and Stachniak didn't mess it up. I did find it slow in a few places so it gets a 4 instead of a 5. I wanted to know more at the end of Winter Palace (always a good sign) and am now reading the new Catherine biography by Robert Massie to finish the story.
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]
Stephanie W. (Hudson, OH)
Varvara the spy
The Winter Palace tells the story of the rise of Catherine the Great from charity bride to Empress through the eyes of her friend and "tongue," (spy) Varavara. There are nice parallels between the young princess and the narrator in that both are foreigners in Russia without parents or anyone else to look out for them. The characters are engaging and not always what is expected and the story moves along quickly. Fans of Phillipa Gregory will enjoy similar insights into the workings of the court and the monarchy. If you like historical fiction and glittering European court stories, this book is for you.