Posted in Book Reviews, Book Stuff

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Let me start by saying that The Winter Palace is so rich with historical detail about Russia in the time of the young Catherine the Great that the atmosphere surrounded me even when I put the book down.

The Winter Palace tells the story of the young and naive (or is that a masquerade?) Princess Sophie. An insignificant princess from a backwater German principality, Sophie is married off to the mentally disabled and unstable heir to the Russian throne, the nephew of the Russian Empress Elizabeth.  How Princess Sophie becomes Catherine the Great is the driving force behind the narrative, which is told from the point of view of a “tongue,” one of the  court spies.  Like Sophie, Barbara (in Russian Varvara) is a foreigner, a Polish girl of lowly status who rises in the court through her own ability to negotiate its intrigues. Managing to worm her way into the service of the Empress, Barbara goes on to become Sophie’s spy because of her genuine affection for the girl who will become a powerful empress in her own turn.

I’ve known the author of this fine novel for about 18 years. We met at the Humber workshop for writers in 1994 and have been friends ever since. We are cultural cousins–my parents are Polish Jews, and Eva is Polish. It’s remarkable that she writes so skillfully in English given that Eva left Poland as a young woman. Yet she does and Eva has made steady and well-deserved progress  in her writing career since we met. Her first novel, Necessary Lies, was published by Dundurn, a small and well respected Canadian press, and won Amazon’s first novel prize. Her second novel, The Garden of Venus, was published in Canada and the UK by HarperCollins. The Winter Palace is her third novel in English, and is coming out this month simultaneously in Canada, the UK, and the US under Random House imprints.

Eva’s research is impeccable and I’m always impressed by the way she connects with academic researchers who share with her the least known and most vivid details of everything from medical equipment to toileting. The 18th century comes fully alive in The Winter Palace, and the rise of two generations of powerful women is unforgettable:

There had been many lessons since that first one. Soon I knew how to pick locks with a hairpin, how to tell by the grain of wood where concealed drawers were hidden. I knew how secret pockets could be sewn into belts and traveling sacks, letters hidden in secret compartments of clocks or in the lining of shoes, tucked away in chimneys, the vents of stoves, beneath windowsills, inside cushions, or in the bindings of books.

I learned how to trail someone without being seen, to tell the true smiles from those that masked treason, to sneer at the flimsy hiding places underneath loose floorboards or under the pillows, places even the least apt of thieves could find.

Grand Duchess Catherine at the time of her marriage, by Louis Caravque 1745


Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

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