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The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 10, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 339 customer reviews

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Julian Fellowes's Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Tasha Alexander Reviews The Winter Palace

Tasha Alexander is the author of the bestselling Lady Emily series. She attended the University of Notre Dame, where she signed on as an English major in order to have a legitimate excuse for spending all her time reading. A confirmed Anglophile from birth, she and her husband, novelist Andrew Grant, divide their time between Chicago and the UK.

Like most lovers of historical fiction, I’m on constant lookout for a book into which I can completely disappear, one that will engulf all my senses and, in effect, turn my couch into a time machine. I want the history to be accurate, the characters to be compelling, and the story to make me reconsider preconceived notions about a period outside the area of my expertise. Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace does all that in spectacular fashion.

The scandal, luxury, and political unrest rife in eighteenth century Russia provide a rich backdrop, and Stachniak takes full advantage of all of it without sticking to the ordinary and expected. Instead of presenting Catherine the Great at the peak of her powers, she gives us the infamous empress during her youth, when she was Sophie, a young German duchess betrothed to the future Tsar Peter III. A not entirely welcome foreigner, Sophie is thrust into a court full of corruption and deceit, where nothing is more important than have a source of reliable information. It is by taking advantage of this circumstance that Stachniak gives her novel extra depth. Catherine is not the protagonist of The Winter Palace. Stachniak tells her story through Barbara, a young woman whose heartbreaking life has led her to employment as an ill-treated seamstress at the palace.

Until someone realizes she’d make a better spy.

Stachniak’s well-chosen protagonist enables her to give the novel a full and satisfying depiction of the Imperial Court, seen not only through the eyes of the privileged nobility, but through a woman who is keenly aware of what goes on above and below stairs. She brings to life the plight of the less fortunate and the delicate balance of truth and lies necessary to survive in the murky labyrinth of Barbara’s world. Stachniak fills her novel with intricate details--the opulence is all but tangible--but never does so at the expense of her story, which moves along at a clipped pace. Her prose, lush and evocative, is as elegant as the fabled Amber Room at Catherine’s summer palace.

The Winter Palace should secure Stachniak a place among the best historical novelists. It is one of those rare books that grabs the reader and won’t let go, one that begs to be read again, one that lingers pleasantly in the mind long after the finishing the last page. And for me, it proved itself in a more simple way: the minute I closed the book, I wanted to get my hands on everything else Stachniak has written.


Advance praise for The Winter Palace
“Stachniak’s brilliant, bold historical novel of eighteenth-century Russia is a masterful account of one woman’s progress toward absolute monarchical rule. . . . This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Awash in period details and as gripping and suspenseful as any thriller, The Winter Palace gives us a unique look at the making of a queen. Eva Stachniak allows us to peep through keyholes and overhear whispers as we navigate the intrigues of Imperialist Russia along with Sophie, the princess who became Catherine the Great. I loved this book, and this glimpse into a world of silk and shadows, grandeur and gossip.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
The Winter Palace is an intensely written, intensely felt saga of the early years that shaped the eighteenth century’s famous czarina, Catherine the Great. Her survival in the treachery of the Russian court was an amazing feat, and Eva Stachniak captures the fluidity and steeliness that propelled Catherine from a lowly German duchess to one of the towering figures of the century.”—Karleen Koen, New York Times bestselling author of Through a Glass Darkly
“Eva Stachniak has given readers a thrilling glimpse into the scandals and secrets at the heart of the Russian Imperial court. With deft prose and exquisite detail, Stachniak has resurrected one of the most compelling ages in history. Turn off the phones and lock the doors—you will not put it down.”—Deanna Raybourn, New York Times bestselling author of Silent in the Grave
“This novel is literary sable to sink into on a cold winter’s night: luxurious and elegant, gilded with details, yet piercing in its depiction of the flamboyant decadence of the Russian court, and the tumultuous rise to power of Catherine the Great, as seen through the eyes of a scheming lady in waiting and spy. Once you enter the glorious, dangerous world of The Winter Palace, you will never want to leave.”—C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
“Utterly enchanting from the first page . . . Eva Stachniak brings to life the sensual feast that was Catherine the Great’s Russia in this beautifully written, tightly plotted novel.”—Tasha Alexander, author of And Only to Deceive

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; 1st edition (January 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553808125
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553808124
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (339 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,701 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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By P. B. Sharp VINE VOICE on August 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Russia has always been surrounded by an aura of mystery even today and the Winter Palace and Saint Petersburg seem as far off and remote as the moon! In this fine historical novel by Polish born Eva Stachniak we are going to sneak right into the palace and right into the private rooms of royalty. You get the feeling throughout this novel that the author understands the Russian psyche well, bringing to life the exalted men and women of Russia's elite and the servants who toil to keep the palaces functioning.

In fact we are going to be Peeping Toms. Or actually, Peeping Thomasinas as "Winter Palace" is penned by a servant girl named Varvara. The old saying that no man is a hero to his valet is pretty much true here as Varvara sees everything, goes everywhere and judges much. Although the way Varvara manages to inveigle herself into the palace is complicated and contrived, this novel is a splendid romp. Varvara becomes the confident of Empress Elizabeth and closely observes her nephew, the Crown Prince Peter who at 16 years of age is cowardly, neurotic.and still wets his bed. She also becomes the friend and confident of the German princess Sophie, in fact she is a sort of double agent. We see the immense panorama of the times through Varvara's eyes.

Everybody in the palace from the Empress Elizabeth to the lowliest scullery maid is waiting with baited breath the arrival of 14 year old Sophie of Anhalt, an obscure German princess who might be a possible mate for the Crown Prince Peter. She is arriving at the palace to be vetted. Sophie is approved and when she has converted (very enthusiastically) to Russian Orthodox, she is married to Crown Prince and assumes the name of Catherine.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'll start by saying I really did think I would enjoy this novel when I picked it out. It is exactly the type of novel I normally go for--historical fiction based upon a key figure in history. This novel is also told through the voice of a third party, which I also usually enjoy, as it allows the reader to see the broader spectrum of events from that period of time. I have never read an historical fiction novel based upon Catherine the Great before and so I was eager to begin reading this novel.
It started out with a lot of promise, introducing Varvara as our voice of the novel, giving a quick sweep of her background, and then placing her perfectly within the Russian court, under the wing of the 'spy-master' Chancellor Bestuzhev. I knew from the synopsis that Varvara was to become the confidante of Catherine, and so the anticipation of how this relationship was to be shaped by the author grew and grew as I read. And then it fizzled out. Although Varvara had been secretly loyal to Catherine all along, the point in their relationship when Catherine finally asked Varvara to be 'on her side' did not occur until halfway through the novel, and even then I felt that Varvara did not become Catherine's true confidante until about two thirds of the way through when she alone was privy to Catherine's relationship with a certain lover. By this point I was so tired of the monotony of the story--Varvara reporting gossip to the Empress Elizabeth, then reporting gossip to Catherine, then reporting gossip to the Chancellor. And the gossip wasn't even that interesting. Lots of names of people and places, but no historical detail that could serve to widen my knowledge or perspective of this time in history.
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When her mother expires of cholera and her father, a Polish bookbinder in the Russian court, dies soon after of a broken heart, Barbara Nikolayevna or Varvara in Russian is left an orphan at the mercy of Empress Elizabeth. At first, the woman in charge of female servants treats Varvara miserably, but soon she takes the eye of Alexi Bestuzhev-Rhumin, the Chancellor of Russia.

For a few sexual favours, he trains her in the art of spying and helps her to gain the confidence of the empress. Eventually she is given a prominent position in the palace, high enough to begin a friendship with the young Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst who becomes Catherine the Great. It is through the eyes and point-of-view of Varvara that the book is written.

I really wanted to like this book a lot. The blood of Mother Russia runs through the veins of my own husband, and I am always fascinated by the history of that country, sad as it is. But I found the plot moved forward very slowly, and it took me much longer than usual to read the novel. It's definitely not a page-turner; rather a book to take in small doses.

That's not to say it isn't well done. The writing is literary and beautiful in style--often quite poetic--but it is a dirge rather than a lyrical piece. It is often depressing. As I read, I could almost hear the sound of The Volga Boatmen in the background. It is that natural Russian melancholy that prevails throughout the story.

Still, I would recommend it so any lover of historical fiction. There is lots to learn from the book. Although rather improbable, it is very informative at times.
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