Monday, February 17, 2014

Mini Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Release Date: January 10, 2012
Publisher: Bantam 
Pages: 444
Received: Bought
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars overall with 4 stars for the end

The Winter Palace takes the "fly on the wall" approach to historical fiction storytelling. Instead of following Catherine the Great, I got to follow a fictional character whose life intersected with Catherine's. I'm not a big fan of this style, mostly because I want to read historical fiction from the perspective of interesting real people. I don't care about an author's fictional maid.

And Barbara was not a particularly interesting person. She wasn't very likable and her story wandered around, occasionally taking digressions I didn't care about at all. This made the book feel slower and dragging at points.

Barbara opens her tale with a bold statement about being a super spy, but I was never impressed with her spying capabilities. She seemed incredibly naive and not at all able to keep up with the political machinations of the real historical figures. Most of the book skirted around the periphery of Catherine, Russian politics, and her rise to power. I felt left out of a lot of the meat of Catherine's story.

As far as a history lesson cheat sheet, The Winter Palace was decent, but not spectacular. I definitely felt the difference between the Russian court and other European courts I've read about (mostly English and French). I don't feel like Eva Stachniak dug as deep into the nitty gritty details I want out of historical fiction, but this was a good foundation. Knowing little, I learned a lot. Had I known more though, I think the details would have felt pretty sparse. 

All that said, The Winter Palace is the type of book I needed to read to the end in order to get the full impact. It wasn't until the end, when Barbara came to an huge realization, that I realized just what the author had done and how powerfully she had managed to convey the ruthlessness, calculation, and cruel genius of Catherine. I don't think this would have hit so strongly had she chosen a first person narrative through Catherine's perspective. It reminded me a lot of the narrative trick Megan Whalen Turner pulls off in The King of Attolia.

Bottom line

So, while The Winter Palace was in some ways a big disappointment, in other ways it was a huge triumph. I'm very glad I read it, even though I still feel like I want to find a book to get to know Catherine better.

The book covers Catherine's earlier years before she became Empress and ends right as she gains power. There is a sequel, but The Winter Palace ends just fine as a standalone and I don't think I'll be picking up the sequel (BAD reviews).

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 


  1. Yea, I started this one once, but I didn't make it to the end. Since you say that's the important part, I guess I need to try again. Great review!

    1. Yes this is definitely one of those books where the ending made it for me. I think if you're not loving the journey there though, then it may not be entirely worth it.

  2. This would definitely be a book where I would skim A LOT until I found the interesting tidbits. Sorry it was a bit lackluster for you.

    1. yyyees lots of skimming could be in order. There were a few scenes where I couldn't help but think, "Why am I reading this??"

  3. Too bad this wasn't the winning book you wanted it to be. It sounds like it has a lot of potential. But maybe it's helpful to go into it with low expectations. At least it wasn't a total disaster.

    1. Yes, I went into it with fairly high expectations. I'd been coveting it for a long time, largely because of that cover.

  4. It's disappointing that the MC can't live up to her boasting of being a super spy. I agree that this would have probably been a lot more interesting from the POV of Catherine. Who wants to be a maid when they could pretend to be the princess?

    1. Isn't it disappointing!? The first opening lines were SO good as she talked about how she was the person overhearing everyone's secrets and going through their personal possessions and thwarting all their spy traps. And then I never got to see her do any of that stuff!

      Ugh, totally agree with you about being a princess over being a maid!


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