The Winter Palace: Book summary and reviews of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace

A Novel of Catherine the Great

By Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace
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  • Published in USA  Jan 2012,
    464 pages.

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Book Summary

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 - as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

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.

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.

Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history's grandest tales.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Stachniak's brilliant, bold historical novel of eighteenth-century Russia is a masterful account of one woman's progress toward absolute monarchical rule… This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don't have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph." - Booklist

"Since Stachniak... can't invent anything more bizarre than actual czarist history, she wisely focuses on portraying the liaisons of Russian court life, with Varvara's story paralleling Catherine's before taking its own unique turn." - Publishers Weekly

"Longtime readers of English and French historical novels will delight in this relatively unsung dynasty and the familiar hallmarks of courtly intrigue." - Library Journal

"Less a novel than a 400-plus-page prologue to an anticipated sequel." - Kirkus Reviews

"This is a majestic and splendidly written tale of pride, passion, intrigue, and deceit that is brought alive from the first page to the last." - Rosalind Laker, author of The Golden Tulip

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Kristin P. (Elburn, IL)
The Winter Palace
I had high hopes for The WInter Palace as a fan of historical fiction and Russian history. However, the book failed to live up to its potential. The author's creativity in storytelling was not fully realized since the majority of the characters were written one-dimensionally. Overall, the book was arduous to finish, I kept waiting for more character development or for the author to tie up loose ends, but instead the book was more of a "study" instead of a finished work.

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Karen D. (Dedham, MA)
Catherine who?
I so wanted to read this book as I have traveled to St. Petersburg/Leningrad. I was disappointed that I am on page 404 and just now Catherine has become Catherine the Great. Much of her life was eliminated but we know all about Varvara. Did I miss the steps leading up to her coronation? I shall read Robert Massie's book to learn more about Sophie who became Catherine.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Virginia B. (Foster, RI)
A matter of trust
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is an engrossing, well-written historical fiction about the Russian court of Empress Elizabeth during the 1700’s told from an interesting point of view. The narrator is the daughter of a bookbinder who is thrust into the court upon the death of her father when she is only a child. Bright, inquisitive, lonely and starved for attention Varvara is trained by Elizabeth’s Chancellor to become his spy. Her loyalties shift when Catherine, the German girl sent to Russia at 14 to marry the Empress’s nephew, forms a friendship with her. Intrigue, sex, gossip and luxuriant descriptions of the opulent court make this novel a delightful, realistic step back in time. I look forward to the next novel about Catherine the Great, The Empire of the Night. Those who have enjoyed Carr’s novels about the English Court will enjoy reading this as well.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Virginia P. (Tallahassee, FL)
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
"The spies you learn about are either those who get exposed or those who reveal themselves." In the first sentence of this novel, the author lays the groundwork for what is to follow, a story of secrets kept and revealed and a captivating tale of mid 18th century Russia prior to and during the early reign of Catherine the Great. Stachiniak's descriptions are lush and her characters, well drawn. Intertwining with Catherine's life is that of her confidante, Barbara, whose loyalty perhaps exceeds that of most of the others players in this tale. The author apparently has a vast knowledge of Russian history which moves along with the story and leaves you wanting to increase your own knowledge. It was an enjoyable book.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Laura G. (Buffalo, NY)
A Fun Read
It was a lot of fun reading The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak. The actual story of Catherine the Great is very colorful and this book makes it that much more interesting. Although the names are difficult at first, they become easier as the story progresses. The point of view of a servant/spy brings a new perspective, that of someone who reads important information into every movement, conversation and letter. The descriptions of life in the Russian Courts help you to envision scenes beautifully. If you enjoy historical fictions, you will enjoy this tale of imperial intrigue.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Rosemary T. (San Antonio, TX)
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Although I enjoyed the book, I was disappointed that the author made Catherine's confidante, Varvara, the main character. The book cover claims that it is a novel of Catherine the Great, however we really never get to know her, only what is presented through Varvara.

...14 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Eva Stachniak Author Biography

Eva Stachniak was born in Wroclaw, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 and has worked for Radio Canada International and Sheridan College, where she taught English and humanities. Her first short story, "Marble Heroes," was published by The Antigonish Review in 1994, and her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. She is also the author of Garden of Venus, which has been translated into seven languages. She lives in Toronto.

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