The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Published by: Random House
Published on: January 10, 2012
Page Count: 464
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Reading Format: eGalley downloaded from NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover and eBook
Book Tour: I am pleased to be Eva Stachniak’s tour host today. Today is an extra special day because The Winter Palace is officially published today. Please read my review and be sure to come back on Thursday for a guest post from the author about the perils of researching too much. I will also have a copy of the book to giveaway. In the meantime, you can also view the book trailer at the end of my review.
Barbara’s father is an immigrant book binder. He may not be a rich man, but he is the best at what he does. It is his skill and dedication that first catch the eye of Empress Elizabeth. Because of his work for her, he is able to request a place for Barbara in her court should anything ever happen to him. Too soon, Barbara’s father does pass away. That promise from the Empress does not immediately pave her way to a better life. Quite the contrary. She is at a disadvantage because of her background. It is her intelligence that brings her our of her initial miserable servitude. Count Bestuzhev, always vying for favor, discovers how clever she is. It is he who teaches her how to spy effectively to become one of Empress Elizabeth’s most trusted tongues. His other introductions to court life were less desirable, but Barbara’s downfall was ignoring his most valuable advice.
There is nothing more intriguing, especially at a safe distance, than a royal court in turmoil. The Winter Palace brings this non stop tumult directly to the reader. Empress Elizabeth forcibly took over power from the infant Ivan VI. She intentionally has no children of her own and brings a nephew in to be her heir. Her nephew Peter is an odd young man, putting his ascension in jeopardy. It is most important to Elizabeth to find a suitable wife for him, one who will bare him many heirs. When she joins Elizabeth’s court, Barbara takes it upon herself to help Catherine. By acting on her own, she puts her place in the Winter Palace in jeopardy, but that isn’t the only consequence. In the end, it will cost her so much more.
I became very much engaged in Barbara’s story. She herself makes some cruel decisions, but mainly in her youth. For the most part, she acts as she does to keep those she loves safe. The rest of the characters are not always so noble. Elizabeth lived the life of one who constantly has to remain on guard. Overthrowing the government did not bring security and no one is too precious not to willfully sacrifice when needed. She lived up to her promise not to execute her subjects, but she found much worse ways to punish those who crossed her. Count Bestuzhev was the most distasteful character of all. His life was entirely about getting ahead and using everyone he can in every way he can. He reminded me a great deal of Thomas Howard with a couple extra helpings of depravity. Young Catherine is new to everything in Russia. She couldn’t afford to be naive and impressionable long. She, too, has a role to play and a place to secure.
Although this book is subtitled A Novel of Catherine the Great, it was aptly named. This book is about the comings and goings of the Winter Palace leading up to the end of Empress Elizabeth’s reign. Certainly Catherine is there and is central to Barbara’s story, but what connects the beginning to the end isn’t the emerging monarch. It’s the palace in which Barbara interacts with the every shifting powers that be that define the story.
The Winter Palace was my introduction to Russian historical fiction and I enjoyed my time there. In many ways, the Russian court makes Henry VIII’s seem forgiving and peaceful. Not only did this book inspire me to learn more about Catherine the Great, I thought the ending of this book was just perfect. I cared for Barbara and I was so pleased with the life she went on to have. Given the title and the setting of this novel, it makes an excellent selection for this time of year.