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The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great    by Eva Stachniak order for
Winter Palace
by Eva Stachniak
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Catherine the Great makes an intriguing historical subject. In The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great, Eva Stachniak does an outstanding job of portraying a young Catherine (from the day she arrives in St. Petersburg as teen Princess Sophie from Zerbst). Her story is told through the eyes of Varvara, a palace servant who becomes the princess's tongue (spy) and confidante.

Varvara grows up in Poland, her father a bookbinder. The family moves to St. Petersburg. When her mother dies, Varvara's father begs Empress Elizabeth to take his fifteen-year-old daughter in on the event of his own death, which follows soon afterwards. At first, Varvara works long hours as a seamstress, but then catches the eye of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster. He trains her to watch through spyholes, pick locks, find concealed drawers, trail others, and remain invisible herself. As Varvara tells us, 'The one you do not expect is the most dangerous of spies.' She plays the palace game as the Empress's tongue.

Empress Elizabeth has named her nephew Crown Prince Peter Fyodorovich and seeks a bride for him. She selects Saxon Princess Sophie and orders Varvara to become her friend. Despite the peril it puts her in, if the Empress or Chancellor ever find out, Varvara truly acts the friend, warns Sophie of risks she is taking, and keeps her secrets. The Empress changes the princess's name to Catherine and the wedding goes forward, but is not consummated. Varvara does what she can to help. When the Chancellor suspects, Varvara is married, willy-nilly, to Imperial Guard Egor Malikin.

Though her new husband is handsome, Varvara resents him and their marriage. They have a small daughter, Darya, who adores her Papa. Varvara does not value Egor highly; yet he looks after his family and is concerned for Russia's future. While Varvara's life proceeds smoothly enough, Catherine's road is bumpy. When she fails to conceive with her husband, the Empress arranges a lover. When the Grand Duchess finally bears a son, the Empress takes him from her immediately and keeps them apart.

Varvara is accepted back at court and continues to do what she can for Catherine, as the 'battle for Elizabeth's mind' is waged on a daily basis. Then, as the Empress herself nears death, tragedy strikes in Varvara's personal life. Soon afterwards, Catherine makes her move to take the throne from her weak husband, who warns Varvara that 'My wife will squeeze you out like the juice from an orange, and then throw away the rind!'

Eventually, Varvara is reminded of what she should have known all along, to put no faith in princes. She withdraws from court, taking Darya to Poland, where she reads Tacitus who warns that 'Holding to power ... is like holding on to a wolf' and buys an estate far from the Russian border. If you enjoy historicals, then The Winter Palace is an enthralling must read. And there's more in store - the author is working on another novel about Catherine, The Empire of the Night.

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