The Winter Palace is the first in a series about Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. Stachniak's telling of Catherine's reign starts at the very beginning, when Catherine is a only a girl, just-arrived at the palace of Empress Elizabeth. She is soon wed to Elizabeth's nephew and heir, Peter, and thus assumes the role of Grand Duchess. Her relationship with Peter (while cordial to begin with) is less than amorous, and the court constantly frets over their inability to produce an heir to the Prussian throne. Catherine is cast aside by both the Empress and the Grand Duke, who both underestimate both her ambition and her ability to charm others into following her. Told from the perspective of one of the Empress's tongues (aka spies), Varvara, the plot follows Catherine from her arrival at the palace to her coup d'état and succession to the throne.
Although Catherine is the subject of this series, in this first novel, Varvara is both the narrator and main character. It is through Varvara's lense that we witness change in the rule of Russia. This book reminded me quite a bit of this historical fiction novel (which I loved), as I think it's easier and far more intriguing when the perspective is that of someone who is considered "invisible" within the castle walls. I find it so sad how, during this time in history, women were married without their consent (for the sake of politics) and then were only considered as good as their child-bearing abilities. Catherine is not treated well by her new family, and finds friendship and loyalty elsewhere. The relationship between Catherine and Varvara is unusual, because although Varvara's loyalty lies with Catherine, she is a close confidante of the Empress Elizabeth as well, who considers Catherine to be an unimportant and foolish. I really enjoyed witnessing the rise of this leader through the eyes of someone who was more objective but also had much at stake. Varvara is a character that is easy to both identify and empathize with: she is a devoted mother, loyal, intelligent, and doing everything she can to ensure her own family's survival in a time of upheaval. I love this type of story within the historical fiction genre because it really highlights how powerful women were, not only in public roles, but also behind the scenes. I'd recommend this to fans of Elizabeth Freemantle, Michelle Moran, and Phyllis T. Smith. I will certainly be following this series!
Bottom-Line Rating: 5/5
Title: The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great
Author: Eva Stachniak
Publisher: Bantam, 2012
Price: Used copies only $3.98!
Source: Public Library