I was so looking forward to reading this book. I love historical fiction novels set in Russia and this one sounded wonderful (and has such a beautiful cover too). It would be the perfect book to lose myself in over the Christmas holidays, I thought. Well, unfortunately it wasn't. Or not for me, anyway - the majority of people who have reviewed this book seem to have loved it, which makes me feel even more disappointed that I didn't.
The Winter Palace is described as 'a novel of Catherine the Great', which is slightly misleading as Catherine is not the main character and the book only covers her early years. Beginning with her arrival at court as the Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a prospective bride for the Empress Elizabeth's heir, Grand Duke Peter, Catherine's rise to power is described by her friend, Varvara Nikolayevna. Varvara is a young Polish girl, the daughter of a bookbinder, who is employed as a spy, or 'tongue', at the court of Empress Elizabeth. The Winter Palace is really Varvara's story rather than Catherine's.
This is a period of Russian history I knew almost nothing about, so I can't comment on how accurate any of the novel is. I found some of it confusing at first, due to my unfamiliarity with the people and events of the era, though there is a useful character list at the back of the book to help with this. It's always good to finish a historical fiction novel feeling that you were at least able to learn something about the period and by the time I reached the end of this book I did feel that I had a better knowledge of the subject.
The setting of the book - the Russian Imperial court - was as fascinating as I'd expected it to be. I did enjoy the first few chapters of the book, where Varvara first arrives at the Winter Palace and becomes a spy for the Chancellor, Count Bestuzhev. The atmosphere of claustrophobia and danger was very convincing and showed what it must have been like to live in a world where everything you said or did was being spied on and reported. Reading about all the plotting, scheming, betrayal and changing allegiances made me feel relieved that I didn't have to experience life at the Russian court myself!
I think the book might have worked better for me if it had been narrated by Catherine herself instead of her story being secondary to Varvara's, who was not even present at court for long sections of the novel. I didn't feel enough connection to Varvara and her personal storyline to stay interested throughout the chapters where she was away from the Winter Palace and I thought it was a bad decision to remove her character from the Empress's household for such a long period of time as this was what led to me becoming bored with the story.
Really, this wasn't a bad novel; it just didn't have the depth I was hoping for, especially considering the length of the book. I don't think I'll be reading the sequel, though it would be interesting to see how Eva Stachniak continues the story.