Book review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

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Powerful women are always irresistible ... think Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Boudicca, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the ‘queen’ of them all, Catherine the Great of Russia.

Eva Stachniak knows only too well the magnetic pull of feisty females and her sizzling and sensuous novel set at the dangerous heart of the St Petersburg court features no less than three amazing women.

Two of them are real – the notoriously ruthless Russian empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The third is a fictional Polish girl who becomes a court spy for both rulers, their secret ‘eyes and ears.’

The other star of this 18th century thriller is the Winter Palace itself, the place where nothing is impossible but where every word you say may be repeated and used against you, where every friend you trust may betray you and where being invisible is the best possible virtue.

It’s an epic story and one that reaches far beyond the parameters of a standard historical novel. There’s fascinating political and social detail, the incredible revelations of how Catherine grabbed the throne from her husband, a recounting of the events that shaped Russia’s future and all seen through the eyes of a girl groomed to be a spy.

Indeed, the sexual mores, the scandals and the scheming which accompanies the claustrophobic monarchical rule we witness in The Winter Palace makes Elizabeth Tudor’s battles seem no more than playground spats.

When 16-year-old Varvara, an orphan girl from Warsaw, is brought to serve as a seamstress at Empress Elizabeth’s glittering court, it looks increasingly likely she will never be more than a ‘Polish stray.’

But her ability to read, to listen and to watch convinces the ‘slippery eel’ Count Bestuzhev, the Russian Chancellor, that she would serve well as the Empress’s ‘tongue,’ the ‘teller of the most important stories.’

To this end, she is schooled by the Chancellor himself in skills from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent. He shows her the palace’s hidden drawers, the spy-holes in the panelling, the hidden corners of chimneys, cushions and books, and the maze of secret corridors.

‘Spying,’ Bestuzhev tells her, ‘is the art of using people who do not believe in loyalty, whose appetites are enormous and unpredictable, and whose motives are always suspect.’

But Varvara’s own hitherto unquestionable loyalties are divided when Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for Peter, Elizabeth’s nephew and heir.

Set to spy on her by the Empress, Varvara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit seductions and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court.

But Sophie’s destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Ambitious and sometimes cruel, she will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power for herself, even if that means abandoning the friendships that have helped her rise to power...

Stachniak’s sensationally dramatic story is brimming with court detail from the foods and fashions of the empresses to life in the servants’ quarters where guile and cunning are as rampant as in the opulent salons above.

She fills the pages with the dramas of human relationships, the paranoia of subterfuge and the perils of absolute power.

Written with descriptive flair and a superb intensity, The Winter Palace is a dazzling display of historical novel writing and makes us hungry for the much-anticipated sequel.

(Doubleday, hardback, £12.99)