Intrigues and Tedium in the Russian Court

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The Winter Palace – A Novel of Catherine the Great, by Eva Stachniak

Among the concerns novel writers must contend with in order to provide stimulating reads is the development of characters. Ms. Stachniak’s book, The Winter Palace, has many strong points – and I’ll enumerate some of them in a minute. In order to develop characters in an appealing way, one much first decide which characters lie at the center of a story and provide a layering to distinguish them from the rest. That is, those at the eye of the storm, so to speak, must have the most details about their reasons for being in the story, their physical and emotional characteristics primarily. As other characters fade to lesser importance, details should be less specific.
In this book there are three main characters: Empress Elizabeth, Catherine (Sophia) of Zerbst, and the book’s narrator, Varvara Malikina, a friend of Catherine’s. Throughout the book’s first half, the character resonating most brightly is Empress Elizabeth. It’s only in the book’s last quarter that we see a fully fleshed Catherine emerging. Too, Varvara seems a pale character throughout, but this is sometimes the fate of first person peripheral narrators. Among the questions that seem to go unanswered, or inadequately answered, are:

1 – Does Catherine seem the stuff of a ruler, i.e., does she command the presence of those about her?
2 – Has she ordered a palace coup through her own will to power, or is she merely cast into it as a pawn by forces beyond her control?
3 – Is she as manipulative throughout as she is ultimately made out to be?
4 – Does she truly love her arranged marriage-husband?
5 – Does she love her children, or are they simply more pawns in the power game of rule?

Much of my concern with these issues lies in the amount of emphasis placed on the details of palace intrigue, the clothing, habits, and customs of the book’s range of characters. However, there is much to this book to crow about. Ms. Stachniak has clearly done her research, has placed her imagination within the history and personalities between these book covers, and that alone makes the book an appealing read. Her prose occasionally dazzles, and her voice lends itself easily to the baroque nature of this historical era.

As with many cover blurbs one reads these days in order to entice one to buy a book, this one’s are a bit misleading. The book isn’t about Catherine’s reign; in fact, she only achieves personal control of Russia in the book’s final pages. The book would have been better advertised as one about her rise to power, which would make the above five concerns all the more imperative.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

Russia, Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, St. Petersburg, character, pacing, history

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