Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

When Varvara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent - and listen. 
Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress' heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie's destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

After reading a truly terrible young adult account of Sophie, (the future Catherine the Great) a few months ago, I remembered that I had on my shelves another telling of that story, this one recommended by an author I adore, so I decided to give the tale another go.

‘The Winter Palace’ is an intense and gripping story told by Varvara, a Polish orphan who is taken in by the Empress and set to work in the royal wardrobe. She is hungry, exhausted, constantly belittled, and feels she should be destined for greater things if only the Empress knew that she was there living in the palace. By sheer luck and her curiosity she comes to the attention of Count Bestuzhev who trains her and presents her to the Empress as a new spy.

Varvara is a fascinating protagonist. She has a disappointing tendency to become as flat and invisible to the reader as Bestuzhev demands her to be to the occupants of the palace, but on the whole she is an intriguing view point to watch history unfold from. She sees so much, is privy to so much and it is engrossing to watch her become embroiled in the very heart of everything, privy to the Empress herself. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of Russian history will know how the events of the book will play out, but Stachniak manages on the whole to still make it fresh and new and engrossing for the reader as you are enmeshed further along with Varvara.

Stachniak has re-created the Winter Palace with an eye for detail and an ability to convey the sheer grandeur and over indulgence of the period. It is stunning in its complexity and the vibrancy that fairly oozes from the pages as you are drawn into this world with its intrigues and politics and scandals. It is a lush and opulent depiction of life in Russia that Varvara hovers on the edges of, flitting in and out of the main tale and drawing the reader ever deeper into the web of secrets and lies that make up life in the Palace.

There is a distinct lack of urgency in places that really should be steeped in it. Varvara becomes caught up in redecorations of the palace, orders of new gowns and the mundane and the urgency is lost where it should be rampant. Whilst this is a story that details the rise of power and lead up to Catherine’s coup, it does feel that the story ends just as it gets interesting. There should be more of a thrill, an urgency as the pieces are put in place and Catherine takes control of the country. Instead it is a slow and sedate promenade that never fully forms and takes flight, which is disappointing when it could be so much more.

Stachniak has since written a sequel of sorts – a second novel this time from the perspective of Catherine (Sophie) herself, reflecting on her life. Following on from this breath taking foray into Russia and the world of the Winter Palace, I am looking forward to taking myself back there. Lovers of historical fiction will love this look at a crucial turning point in Russian history, and whilst it can drag in a few places, the writing on the whole is brilliant in its execution and will provide a fascinating fresh insight.

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