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Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great    by Eva Stachniak order for
Empress of the Night
by Eva Stachniak
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Eva Stachniak's previous novel about Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, looked at a younger aristocrat (teen Princess Sophie from Zerbst who wed Crown Prince Peter Fyodorovich and later ruled Russia in her own right as Empress) through the eyes of Polish Varvara, a palace servant who became her spy, confidante, and - almost - friend. Varvara eventually left court, settling on a Polish estate with her small daughter Darya.

Stachniak revisits those tumultuous years in Empress of the Night, but now portrays Catherine's entire life through her own eyes, as she looks back on events during her dying hours. It's a most effective approach. It shows us a great ruler, who ruthlessly used those close to her to advance her own interests and those of the realm. Ironically it also shows us the once naive young princess from Zerbst gradually growing in resemblance to the one who so mistreated her, her mother-in-law Empress Elizabeth. Early on in the poisonous court atmosphere, Sophie learns that 'I shall either rule or perish' and she never forgets it.

Catherine takes a succession of younger and younger lovers, though she does show some loyalty to each of them and mourns their passing. She despises her eldest son Paul (who was taken from her at birth and raised by Elizabeth), but adores her grandson Alexander, whom she hopes to set up as her successor. Foreign diplomats malign Catherine, 'irked that the upstart Russia they used to dismiss has to be reckoned with.' 'There is no reasoning with slander. It breeds like vermin ... Smuggled in the folds of travelers' coats, between pages of books, in the double bottoms of trunks, it delivers its venom straight to the heart.'

The Empress tries to manipulate events even on her deathbed, but it is not to be. Sadly, much of what she built, at such a great cost to herself and those around her, was undone by her successors after her death in 1796. The Winter Palace was an extraordinary novel and so is Empress of the Night - do read them both as their different perspectives illuminate events, as does Eva Stachniak's lyrical writing style. Highly recommended!

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