Eva Stachniak’s luxurious new novel The Winter Palace ushers in a new era for historical fiction aficionados. Amid the plethora of Tudor and Regency era novels, a work of fiction set in Imperial Russia appears fresh as new fallen snow. However, it is Stachniak’s rich language that carries the novel, which owes much to its impeccably researched subject, the opulence of the 18th century Russian court.
The narrator, Varvara Nikolayevna, a bookbinder’s daughter from Poland, is left orphaned at fifteen. She falls under the patronage of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great and becomes a spy or “tongue” to the Empress through the intervention of Chancellor Bestuzhev, a mentor in more than one aspect of the court’s depravity. After a year or so adjusting to her new duties, Varvara is invited to befriend a new arrival at court, Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. The Empress wants to know everything about the potential betrothed of her nephew Peter, whom she has adopted as her heir. Varvara becomes devoted to the princess, who converts to Russian Orthodoxy taking the name Catherine, and leaps through a series of hoops to land the coveted position of bride to the foolish Peter. Through Varvara’s eyes, the reader comes to know the royal family and courtiers intimately. She accompanies Catherine to rendezvous with lovers and comforts her when the Empress takes her children away.
Varvara’s position as a spy allows the intrigue of the plot to revolve around spies, gossip, and politics, and unlike other recent historical fiction, gaps are not needlessly filled in with sex to keep things interesting. In fact, for a story that involves so much sex (as both the women Varvara serves, Empress Elizabeth and the future Catherine the Great were known for their sexual appetites and numerous lovers), there is surprisingly little explicit scenes. Unlike other fictional spies, Varvara lacks the usual level of cynicism and detachment. She allows herself to trust and get close to Catherine, inverting the usual story of a spy who distrusts everyone till proven wrong. Her love for her princess becomes the central relationship of the book. There is a natural arc and ending in Catherine’s ascendance to the throne; the crux of Varvara’s story is a little more ambiguous, but no less interesting in a character that many readers will identify with.
Like Varvara, author Stachniak was born in Poland, and her fondness for her homeland is evident. While she recognizes it is less sensually impressive than Imperial Russia, she deftly works in Poland’s democratic election of kings, in a time when such elections were rare or unheard of (though the French Revolution would soon change that).
The author currently lives in Toronto and is working on the sequel in the planned trilogy that, along with Robert K. Massie’s recent biography, will raise deserved interest in Catherine the Great and her scheming court.
Purchase the book The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak on Amazon.com.