Although the subtitle of The Winter Palace is 'a novel of Catherine the Great', it's really a novel about a young Polish woman called Barbara (Varvara when she arrives in Russia). The daughter of a bookbinder, she is orphaned and left in the care of Empress Elizabeth's Court in the Winter Palace of St Petersburg. Initially a lowly seamstress, her intelligence and quick wit catches the eye of Chancellor Bestuzhev and she is trained as a 'tongue', or spy for a variety of masters. Eventually, she throws in her lot with Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, the future Catherine the Great and becomes entangled in many plots and intrigues.
The Winter Palace was a well written book, the kind of historical fiction that I enjoy. It was obvious upon reading it that Stachniak had done her research and was keen to share this with the reader. Aside from the lives of the main characters, there were lots of smaller facts and details that made it easy to imagine the court and the cast of secondary characters. There was also a romance about the Russia Stachniak set her story in; she has Varvara at one point feeling homesick for;
"January nights, white not from the sun that refuses to set but from the silver light of the moon. For ice floes screeching as they rub again against one another, for rocks in which precious stones look like frozen drops of blood. For sacred places where, in a solemn moment, you can peek into the other world."
Russia itself was almost another character in the novel and the Russian winter was always intruding on the lives of the protagonists. I loved this element of the writing.
Despite all of this, I didn't love The Winter Palace. Although I enjoy detailed historical fiction, I felt as though this novel was over-long in parts. For whole sections of the text, Varvara is away from the Court and the royal characters and these sections could have been shortened. I was interested in what she did during these times, I just wanted to get back to the main action as well. And whilst Varvara was a wonderfully drawn character, the royal characters did feel a bit one-dimensional. It's only in the closing sections that we get a glimpse of the ruthlessness Catherine the Great was famous for, and Peter III comes across as childish, rather than the unpleasant character he really was.
Still, at the end of this novel I felt as though I had learned a lot about a period of history relatively unknown to me. Fans of Juliet Grey's Becoming Marie Antoinette will definitely enjoy this one.
Verdict: Well written historical fiction with the unusual setting of the Russian court.
Source: From the publisher, via NetGalley
Score: 3.5 out of 5
The Winter Palace is published tomorrow, January 10th 2012.