Thursday, May 30, 2019

Audio Book Review: The Winter Palace by Eve Stachniak

Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: January 10, 2012
Source: Personal Copy
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.  Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.  What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.   With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.   Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales."

Varvara becomes an orphan at a young age and her fate doesn't look promising until Empress Elizabeth of Russia hires her as a seamstress.  The Chancellor of Russia takes her under his wing and makes her his spy.  She must report on all the events surrounding the Empress.  Essentially, Varvara has gone from a seamstress to a spy.  Then Sophie, the future Catherine the Great, comes to court to hopefully marry Elizabeth's nephew, Peter.  The two young girls, despite their differing stations in life, become quick friends.  Varvara, despite the Chancellor's directives, is extremely loyal to Catherine.  Both girls are forced into a marriage and life at court is never easy.  Eve Stachniak's The Winter Palace showcases Catherine the Great's life through the eyes of a fictional servant and the tumultuous Russian Court.

Varvara is an underdog in The Winter Palace and who doesn't like to root for the underdog?  The loss of her parents and her move to court is a drastic one.  Then when the Chancellor uses her as his spy, things start to get really tricky for her.  She feels a loyalty to Catherine, but finds herself having to spy on her.  I was rooting for Varvara to the very end, especially when she ends up in an arranged marriage thanks to the Empress and banished from Court.  Varvara still keeps her friendship with Catherine though.

Stachniak tells Sophie's (the future Catherine the Great) story through Varvara's eyes and while I found this interesting at first, I wanted a few chapters from Catherine's perspective in order to understand her a bit more.  After her marriage to Peter, she still finds herself in a precarious position in court as the Empress doesn't like her and her husband isn't the least bit interested in producing an heir.  Essentially, Catherine's story is about women rising to power despite all the odds and I appreciated that.  All in all,  Catherine the Great is such an interesting character historically and she comes to life in The Winter Palace, but I would have preferred more from her point of view as sometimes she would come across very dependent through Varvara's eyes.

The narrator of The Winter Palace audio book is Beata Pozniak and with her accent, she truly brought the Russian Court to life. I didn't find her accent jarring; in fact, I liked it as it felt very authentic to the story.

While I liked my first foray into the Russian Court, I think I'll stick to the English Court as The Winter Palace didn't dazzle me as much as I was hoping despite the glowing reviews for this series.  Fans of historical fiction that love political intrigue as well as espionage, will enjoy The Winter Palace the most.

Have you read or listened to novels about Catherine the Great?  If so, can you make some recommendations for me? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. I know I've read this book and I had a copy of it at some point, but since I got rid of it I guess the story didn't make that much of an impression on me! I agree with you, I'll stick to English royalty.

    1. Yeah, it was just ok, which surprised me b/c the reviews were incredible. I think I'll stick to English royalty as well. Thanks for visiting, Angela.


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