The Winter Palace- A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak
Of course I have heard of Catherine the Great, but I realized I did not know her story, and was very excited to learn about her. I love historical fiction, especially about royals, and have looked forward to reading this one for some time. Catherine wasn't actually born Catherine, but Sophie, and was the daughter of a German princess who was not on the throne, and quite was impoverished when it was requested that she travel to Russia to meet the Russian prince. They did not fall in love, but she was deemed an acceptable mate for him, and they were married. It was upon her induction to the Russian Orthodox faith that her name was changed from Sophie to Catherine.
Although this is the story of Sophie growing into her role as Catherine, and ultimately becoming the sole ruler of the Russian empire, it is as much the story of Elizabeth, the tsarina who was in power when Sophie travelled from Germany to Russia, and who made Catherine's life extremely difficult. However, through her ruthlessness, she also taught Catherine how to play the game of royal intrigue, betrayal, manipulation, and rule, and because of her experiences, Catherine grew from a timid girl into one of the most famous and cunning rulers of all time. This story is told through the lens of Varvara, an orphaned girl who becomes a lady's maid/spy to Elizabeth and Catherine both. Varvara was my favorite character in this book, and her goodness went far to redeeming this story that was so often about the ugly side of political ambition.
My criticism of this book would be that I felt it to be about twice as long as it should have been. I felt like I had lived Catherine's entire lifetime in Russia at her side by the time I was finished. At times it felt tedious. I know it can be fun to imagine everything about your characters as you write, making them feel like real people as every detail of their lives is thought out, however, not all of those details should make it into the final version of the book, but this is a book where they did, and it was a bit much to wade through. I came out the other side feeling that I knew Elizabeth and Catherine intimately, though, and I learned so much about their rule and the early days of the Romanov empire that I'd not known before. Also, this is supposed to be a book about Catherine the Great, but it was really a book about Catherine's rise to power, and I thought it would be about her rule. I imagine the author probably has another book about her rule in the works.