Barbara is a young Polish orphan when she enters the Russian royal palace seeking the assistance of Empress Elizabeth, who once vowed to help her. Barbara, called Varvara by the Russians, is taken on as a spy, trained by the Chancellor in hearing careless remarks, sneaking down passages, deciphering facial expressions, and making love. When young Sophie comes to court as a bride for the Empress’s heir, Varvara is placed near her, urged to watch her every move. Sophie is not merely a docile bride for the future Tsar; she is the future Catherine the Great, and every disappointment she endures as a young woman is merely fuel for the great reign she will have over Russia.
Russia has always enchanted me, and lately it seems that it has enchanted many readers, too; after the popularity of Robert K. Massie’s newly released biography of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace has arrived as an excellent fictional retelling of Catherine the Great’s life, capturing another tier of readers with the enthralling story of this Empress of All the Russias. This is the first of two halves, covering the period from Catherine’s arrival to the Russian court as Sophie, an obscure German princess, to her triumph as Empress Catherine the second.
Stachniak’s approach, showing us Catherine through the eyes of a woman who was her friend, is a very clever one, because it not only introduces us to a character we can care about, who is aware of all of the secrets in all aspects of Russian courtly life, but it also lets us view Catherine’s development through another pair of eyes. Varvara could have become a mute vehicle for Catherine, but instead she is a fully fleshed out character in her own right, with her own mistakes, successes, and loves outside of Catherine’s sphere. Her position makes her vulnerable and powerful simultaneously; as a bookbinder’s daughter with access to the most powerful people in Russia, she suffers from this odd dichotomy more than once. It’s easy to feel for her, especially when she uses the agency she has to make the wrong decisions, the repercussions of which she only comes to understand later on.
Of course, it’s probably Catherine who should be considered the star of the show here; from a young girl studying relentlessly in her room to understand Russian language and culture to a woman conscious of her power, she undergoes radical change in the course of this book. But because Varvara is close to her, it’s never hard to understand how that change has happened. We can almost witness her hardening, her learning, her ferocity growing as the politics begin to change and warp her innocence. The end of the book confirms that, perhaps, it happens sooner than we’d like to think, but it is a fascinating journey nonetheless.
All of this excellent character development is wrapped up in the gorgeous settings of the Russian court, beautiful trappings for a scheming court. It’s easy to get lost in Stachniak’s writing and her evocative descriptions. The story is smoothly crafted, too; there were a few moments towards the middle of the book where I got impatient, mainly because I knew what was going to happen and I didn’t like waiting, but looking back, I think everything was necessary for the plot to wrap up completely. My mood matched that of the characters.
An excellent choice for historical fiction readers, especially those who are eager to learn about Russia or Catherine the Great. Highly recommended.
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