16 January 2012

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Varvara Nikolayevna, the orphaned daughter of a immigrant bookbinder, is taken in by the Russian court to serve the royal seamstress. After Empress Elizabeth's closest advisers realize the girl can read and speak several languages, she is given another, secret job. Varvara is to become a spy for the empress, revealing all she sees and hears in the palace, in return for serving Grand Duke Peter.

When the Lutheran Sophie arrives at the Winter Palace, rumor has it that the young princess is meant to marry the grand duke. To help Empress Elizabeth decide on the betrothal, Varvara is ordered to befriend Sophie and show her the ways of the Russian court--and to report her every movement to the empress. As Varvara gets to know the future Catherine the Great, she begins to have torn loyalties, putting her own life and future in jeopardy.

Eva Stachniak's The Winter Palace is a very well researched historical novel of the rise of Catherine the Great from guest of the royal court to her seizure of the Russian throne. The story itself is told through the eyes of a servant girl, who is at times an unwilling participant and at others an active manipulator of the affairs of the court.

It's Varvara's insider/outsider perspective that makes The Winter Palace shine. The girl is privy to inner workings of the palace, and she knows how to uncover the most guarded secrets. Varvara sees all and reports what she must her to various masters, while also acting in her own best interests.

Here in the Russian court, I could have warned the pretty newcomer from Zerbst, life is a game and every player is cheating. Everyone watches everyone else. There is no room in this palace where you can be truly alone. Behind these walls there are corridors, a whole maze of them. . . . Every word you say may be repeated and used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you. (p. 6)
Stachniak's subject--the story of Catherine's rise to power--is an exciting one all on its own, as was made clear by recent the Massie biography. Still, the novel brings a freshness to Catherine's transformation from minor nobility to Russian empress and manages to do so without twisting the facts in any glaring way. It's important, however, to remember that The Winter Palace is a novel with Varvara at its hub and the workings of the Russian court as its arena.

Varvara is a likeable witness, and readers will be as taken up in her life as they are in Catherine's. The Winter Palace will appeal to readers just getting to know about Russian history in the years of Elizabeth's reign. For those who are already familiar with Catherine's rise to power, the novel will flesh out the facts, providing a more personal perspective.

Published by Random House / Bantam Books, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780553808124
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Sheila (Bookjourney) 1/16/12, 8:38 AM  

Going on the wish list. I am continuously seeing this book around.

Serena 1/16/12, 9:01 AM  

This sounds good. I seem to be attracted to books that have something to do with Russia and book binding or paper making.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 1/16/12, 9:03 AM  

This sounds like a great piece of historical fiction. I'll be adding it to my TBR list. Nice review.

Nise' 1/16/12, 9:32 AM  

Last year I read quite a bit of Russian historical fiction. I will be on the look out for this book.

Martha @ Hey, I want to read that 1/16/12, 9:56 AM  

I dying for this book I can' wait to get my hands on it.

Beth Hoffman 1/16/12, 10:36 AM  

I've been hearing good things about this book, and your review has convinced me to add it to my list!

Andi 1/16/12, 10:56 AM  

This one looks like so much fun. And you're an enabler! ;D

drey 1/16/12, 11:14 AM  

Oooh! I need (yes, NEED) to add this to my ever-growing TBR pile... *sigh*

It sounds fab though, so how could I not?

Kailana 1/16/12, 12:46 PM  

I have this on my TBR pile. It is just a matter of getting around to reading it!

Zibilee 1/16/12, 2:24 PM  

I am just starting to cast about for historical fiction set in Russia during this time frame, and so I think this would be a perfect read for me. I like that the story is told from an outside perspective, and that it sounds so involving. Need to read this one!

bermudaonion 1/16/12, 3:32 PM  

I'm not sure this one's for me, but I bet my mother would enjoy it.

Kaye 1/16/12, 3:41 PM  

This just went on the wish list. I love Russian history. Thank you for such a wonderful review!

Rhiannon 1/16/12, 3:59 PM  

Eva is doing a lecture and book signing at my work (the Royal Ontario Museum) next wednesday. You've made me want to go check it out!

Anonymous,  1/16/12, 4:25 PM  

I enjoyed this book. here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/11/18/81-review-the-winter-palace/

Stacy at The Novel Life 1/16/12, 8:02 PM  

oh i definitely want to read this one! i've always been fascinated by russian history and Catherine the Great - well, she is a character worthy of many books - thanks for the recommendation!

JoAnn 1/16/12, 9:33 PM  

So glad to hear you enjoyed this. I received a copy a few weeks ago.. will get to it soon.

Eva Stachniak 1/17/12, 7:27 AM  

Thank you, Beth, for hosting me on your blog and for your wonderful review of The Winter Palace. What a lively community of readers you have created! So many comments!
I am keeping my fingers crossed for Catherine and Varvara.
Best wishes from Toronto

Jenn's Bookshelves 1/17/12, 8:56 AM  

I'm glad you enjoyed this one as well. Once my crazy travel schedule has ended I plan on picking up the Massie.

Dorte H 1/17/12, 1:22 PM  

I´d probably enjoy this one myself, and I have told my youngest daughter to check it out. The perspective of the seamstress is something she´ll love.

Meg @ A Bookish Affair 1/17/12, 8:21 PM  

I'm in the middle of this book right now!

Erika Robuck 1/18/12, 12:10 AM  

I'm dying to read this book! Great review!

quirky girls 1/20/12, 12:50 AM  

Ooh, I do enjoy a well-researched historical fiction novel. Bookmarking this. Great review, lady!


Julie P. 1/21/12, 9:35 AM  

I'm in the mood for something like this!

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