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Der Winterpalast by Eva Stachniak

Der Winterpalast (edition 2012)

by Eva Stachniak

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Title:Der Winterpalast
Authors:Eva Stachniak
Info:Insel Verlag GmbH (2012), Paperback
Collections:Your library

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

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The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is an historical fiction novel set in Russia during the rise of Catherine the Great.

Court life during the period (1730s - 1760s) is seen through the eyes of Varvara, servant and spy to Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Daughter of Peter the Great, the Empress is brilliantly portrayed as a vain and eccentric woman, taking many lovers and always surrounded by her cats when Varvara arrives at the palace as a newly orphaned young girl just trying to survive.

Prior to picking up this novel by Eva Stachniak, my knowledge of this period in Russia was limited, although I was inspired to find out more, learning the Winter Palace (of the title) is real and the novel is based on historical fact.

Although the title states that The Winter Palace is A Novel of Catherine The Great, I personally found it was Varvara's story first, Empress Elizabeth's second and Catherine's third. This didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the novel however, and I found myself looking forward to picking it up during the hot summer weeks over Christmas.

Catherine the Great comes to power in 1762 and goes on to rule for another 30+ years beyond the ending of the novel and I've since learned there is a sequel called Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great. Published in 2013, it is narrated by Catherine the Great herself and I'm very tempted to add it to my TBR pile straight away.

Highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction and court intrigue, spies, ambition, loyalty and betrayal. ( )
  Carpe_Librum | Jan 8, 2015 |
Excellent & gripping! You feel like you're the proverbial fly on the wall hearing and seeing all that's going on in the corrupt & paranoid court of the Empress Elizabeth. There author maintains the tension throughout the book but keeps you engaged even though you know Catherine pulls off a palace coup and winds up as Empress. I had often wondered how the Amber Room could just disappear during World War II, here we learn that it was in panels and when Empress Elizabeth so chose she could move it from one palace to the next. It was also a great mental visual when the servants were polishing the grand dining table by walking on it with felt slippers. Ready for the sequel! ( )
  lisa.schureman | Sep 20, 2014 |
A novel featuring proximity to the historically notable from the point of view of the ordinary, complete with intrigue, a palace coup, war, and a bookbinder’s daughter made into a countess – I was attracted to this book in a major way. And yet when it was finished, I felt it still wanted something.

"The Winter Palace" brings us the story of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne of all the Russias in 1762. It’s told from the point of view of Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a young girl who has immigrated with her father and mother to St. Petersburg from Poland. As this young girl reaches adolescence (circa 1749 or so) she makes herself valuable to the Empress Elizabeth’s Chancellor, for her ability to gather and keep secrets. She becomes a spy for his excellency, and a pretty reliable one. In a few years, along comes Sophie, a princess in the German ruling Anhalt family, a young maiden of fourteen, who is betrothed to Empress Elizabeth’s nephew and heir-designate, Peter. The book contains the narrative of Sophie, who will take the Russian name Catherine: she arrives at court, bravely tries to get along with Peter, finally marries him, and bears a son whom the Empress takes from her to raise herself. Six months after the old Empress dies, after Peter has ruled disastrously as her heir, Catherine’s supporters confer all power on her and her reign starts in a (nearly) bloodless coup.

The novel’s take on human nature, while I’m sure wholly accurate, remains flat – it’s a monotone of grasping, secretive jealousy, and hunger for power. While I have no doubt that the court of Empress Elizabeth was exactly this way, the story could clearly do with some relief from this miserable and all-encompassing mania. Also I could have wished for a more effective description of the architecture of the palaces and temporary quarters the principals lived in, and more especially of the international and domestic issues that Elizabeth is noted for having dealt with. Yes, we witness this story through the eyes of an unimportant courtier, but Barbara is an awfully quick study, and a large thinker. She would have understood the hazards for Russia contained in the surprise Anglo-Prussian treaty from the Seven Years’ War, for instance.

However, for anyone interested in the novelization of Catherine’s early life and rise to power, this will be a must-read. The author does an excellent job of portraying the royal family in all its jealousy, vainglory, and profligacy, and doing a fully nuanced, justified job on Catherine herself. I would not recommend this book to readers who lack those interests, though.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-winter-palace-by-eva-stachniak.ht... ( )
  LukeS | Jul 5, 2014 |
From the title you can probably guess that this is historical fiction set in the time of Catherine the Great of Russia. I thought this would be fun to read because I recently read a biography of Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie that I loved. This novel tries to tell Catherine's story through the eyes of Varvara, a orphan who ends up a servant in the Winter Palace, moves her way up through spying, and ends up a friend of Catherine. There were some things I liked about the book. One was that the details were very accurate and matched up with the non-fiction I just read. The first half of the book really grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, the book had too many flaws for me to really recommend it. I think that the author just couldn't decide who the book was really about - Varvara or Catherine. The title leads the reader to believe that Catherine is central, but she doesn't succeed in painting a clear picture of Catherine. Also, the book only goes up to Catherine's accession to the throne so most of Catherine's life is waiting around and being marginalized by Empress Elizabeth. The book needed to either be trashier (in a good, gossipy way) or be better written to qualify as a really good book.

All in all, I'm not sorry I read it, but I didn't like it enough to recommend it. I think the author is planning a sequel which I won't be reading unless I'm really bored. ( )
  japaul22 | Jun 29, 2014 |
This story of a upwardly-mobile Polish bookbinder's daughter, who finds herself attending the young Catherine the Great as the "tongue" of the Russian Empress Elizabeth, is everything a historical novel should be. It's well-researched, beautifully detailed, and suspensefully plotted. I attended a reading of this novel last year by the Polish-Canadian author, and was impressed. ( )
  Panopticon2 | Jun 24, 2014 |
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"Stachniak (Dancing with Kings) sets the scene extravagantly with details of sumptuous meals, elaborate wardrobes, and cunning palace politics. Longtime readers of English and French historical novels will delight in this relatively unsung dynasty and the familiar hallmarks of courtly intrigue. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Cathy Lantz (Nov 1, 2011)
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St. Petersburg, October 17, 1756

Three people who never leave her room, and who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on, and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment arrives.

-from the letter of Grand Duchess of All the Russias (later Catherine the Great) to Sir Hanbury-Wiliams, British Ambassador to the court of Empress Elizabeth
For Szymon and Chizuko
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The spies you learn about are either those who get exposed or those who reveal themselves.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553808125, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:13 -0400)

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A reimagining of the early years of Catherine the Great traces the story of a naive German duchess as observed by young Barbara, a servant who watches her mistress's elevation and rises to become one of Russia's most clever royal spies.

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