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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Winter Palace
This is the story of the early years of Catherine the Great, seen through the eyes of a young, Polish girl called Barbara (Varvara in Russian). Varvara is the daughter of a bookbinder, who moves to Russia and restores a precious volume for Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great. When Varvara's parents die, she becomes a 'ward of the Crown'. At first, this...
Published on 28 Nov. 2011 by S Riaz

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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as I'd hoped
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...
Published on 8 Jan. 2012 by Helen S


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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Winter Palace, 28 Nov. 2011
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great) (Hardcover)
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This is the story of the early years of Catherine the Great, seen through the eyes of a young, Polish girl called Barbara (Varvara in Russian). Varvara is the daughter of a bookbinder, who moves to Russia and restores a precious volume for Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great. When Varvara's parents die, she becomes a 'ward of the Crown'. At first, this means that Varvara is set to work in the Imperial Wardrobe, where she is cold, abused, hungry and lonely. Wandering the palace at night she meets Count Bestuzhev, the Chancellor of Russia and he teaches her to become a spy.

Varvara becomes very involved in Palace and Court life - she meets the Empress Elizabeth and reports to both her and the Chancellor. Elizabeth has vowed to rule alone, planning to make her sister's orphaned son the Crown Prince. She arranges his marriage with Princess Sophie, who becomes Catherine. We follow Catherine's arrival at Court at the tender age of fourteen, a German Princess who becomes the Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeyevna. There are many plots, affairs, marriages, sadness and problems ahead for both Catherine and Varvara. All the way through the novel, Varvara is the eyes and ears that inform on the 'game'; plotting and planning amongst the court factions as Catherine struggles to find a place in the shifting loyalties of the Palace. Meanwhile, there is the dominating figure of the Empress Elizabeth, ruling all their lives as Varvara has to decide where her loyalties lie as the game turns dangerous.

This is a wonderful read - Varvara is a very sympathetic character and you cannot wait to find what will happen next. The author is currently working on a second novel about Catherine the Great and I will certainly be keen to read that. Excellent and highly recommended.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as I'd hoped, 8 Jan. 2012
By 
Helen S - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great) (Hardcover)
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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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review from The Word Fiend, 24 May 2012
By 
Shelagh (South Africa) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
The Winter Palace is my kind of historical fiction - there's intrigue, danger and a world that has been brought to life so beautifully that I could immerse myself in the pages while the story unfolded around me. Wonderful.

The cover for The Winter Palace is what originally made me notice the book in my local bookshop. The crisp blues and whites drew me in and I was struck by the contrast between the cold desolation of the winter sky and the opulence of the palace. But it was the dark-haired girl making her way to the palace that really caught my eye. There are no lights in the windows to welcome her and she is so achingly isolated that I wanted to know her story. And what a story it is!

Eva Stachniak's passion for Catherine the Great and eighteenth-century Russia are both wonderfully evident in her writing. She transported me into the halls of the Winter Palace and stood next to me whispering its secrets while I watched in fascination. All historical fiction should be well-researched, but it takes a great talent to translate that level of detail into a story that lives and breathes. There is a fine line between flooding the reader with too much information and giving them just what they need for the world to come to life for them. Stachniak walks confidently on the correct side of that line and never once does she falter. The Winter Palace is a rich reading experience because of it.

The Winter Palace is told from Varvara's point-of-view. She is a strong character and having her narrate allows the reader to become part of the story itself. Varvara's poor upbringing and introduction to the Russian court are stark and effective tools used to highlight the obvious and marked differences between the different tiers of society in eighteenth-century Russia. The pettiness, cruelty and changing whims of Empress Elizabeth creates the perfect breeding ground for court intrigue and power plays that could topple thrones. I liked Varvara, she has a real strength of character that makes her enjoyable to read about. But what really made me care for her were her rare moments of weakness as she continues to struggle in a world where she doesn't make the rules, but has to find a way to live with them. I didn't know much about Catherine the Great before she was crowned Empress, so I really enjoyed learning about Sophie and her trials and small triumphs at court. Stachniak does not gloss over or omit elements of Sophie's story and that allows her to become a character in her own right rather than just a pawn in the greater story. In fact, Stachniak manages this with all of her characters and The Winter Palace is a much richer book as a result.

Well-researched, engaging and detailed The Winter Palace is a wonderful book to get lost in for a few hours. Eva Stachniak is a talented writer of historical fiction and this book is sure to win her many fans.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lightweight and entertaining introduction to the life of a great woman, 7 Jan. 2012
By 
hfffoman (Kent) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great) (Hardcover)
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The Winter Palace tells two stories: the rise to power of the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great; and the fictional life of a young and poor Polish girl, who grew up and gained trust as a spy in the Russian imperial court. The book is full of the intrigues, politics, deceits, illicit liaisons and treacherous shifting alliances of the court; unfortunately they are presented too narrowly from the embittered viewpoint of the servant rather than giving a broad perspective of the period or of Catherine's life.

I am being generous in giving it 4 stars. I visited an exhibition of Catherine's life several years ago and it was much more informative and made a deeper impression on me. She was a fascinating person - not called "the great" for nothing - and many people will find it worth reading a more serious book about her. However, if you are new to the subject or just want a light read about the Russian history and politics of that period, it is entertaining enough.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Story about two women who tried and succeeded to get to the very top, 17 Jun. 2014
By 
Denis Vukosav - See all my reviews
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"The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak tells the story about Catherine the Great's rise to power seen through the eyes of a servant at the court.

Main character, servant named Barbara was employed on the court of the Empress Elizabeth and under the strong tutelage she will be educated in a variety of skills, of which the most important was the ability to listen.
When young princess named Sophie will come from Zerbst, which will soon become a legendary Russian Empress Catherine the Great, destined to marry the Elizabeth's nephew Ivan, her much greater ambitions will slowly begin to show.

Sophie will need an insider at court and Barbara will become one, helping her in the ascent to the throne, due to Barbara's knowledge of court's conspiracies and the treacheries.
Therefore, these two women together can only succeed in what they're up to, to get to the very top...

The novel is told from the first person Barbara's perspective that was the daughter of bookbinder and came to the court of Empress Elizabeth becoming Catherine's spy.
Therefore, the novel story is not so much about Catherine the Great, though the reader will learn something about it as well.
And while the story is well-made and told in powerful way, the author focused more on the presentation of various tricks that the main heroine performed, compared to the historical aspect of the whole story.

In my opinion, also the first person narration in this novel wasn't the best choice because it didn't always serve the story well.

However, this novel will certainly be well received in the circles of those readers who are more interested in love aspect than the politics, so to them this novel can be fully recommended.

For all others, though the writing style is good and the story was well told, due to novel's setting it would be more correct to call it a novel set in the Catherine the Great court because she's here nonetheless secondary character.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent!, 10 Sept. 2013
When Varvara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent - and listen.

Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress' heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie's destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

They say that imitation is the best form of flattery. Well, if that is true then Hilary Mantel should be wondering around, blushing to her ears and muttering 'thank you. oh, nonsense. you're too kind...'
Because this book, here, is "Wolf Hall", written about a different period (but time has no meaning) in a different place (but place has no meaning), from a pov of a suspeciously familiar and yet completely new character.

One of my favourite movies ever, the one I spent my childhood rewatching, is the Russian musical miniseries "Gardemariny, Vpered!", about a group of 3 friends, cadets in a navy military school, helping the Russian Chancellor get his stolen secret archive back, having lots of adventures and falling inlove with special women.
The Chancellor's name was Bestuzhev. It was the reign of Elizabeth, Empress of all the Russias.

This book deals with the same time, the same people, and reading it feels like meeting anew old friends, discovering things you think you know nothing about and yet are familiar and well loved.

Varvara, the heroine of the book, is Polish made Russian, a nobody made courtier, an orphan made a family woman. She befriends another foreigner, a German princess named Sophie, the future bride of the would-be Emperor of Russia. Together they go through years of court intrigue, years of fear and humiliation, elation and dissapointment.

Once you pick it up, this book is very hard to put down - every page holds a new secret, a new intrigue, a new lie, a new love.

To those who like their history timeless, their characters alive, their prose special and uforgetable, this book is for you.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spying in Tsarist Russia, 6 Jun. 2013
By 
A. M. Wong (The Netherlands) - See all my reviews
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To make an historical figure seem real through words and actions must be a challenge. The ending has already been written and the author needs to fashion a believable story, based on letters, accounts, and historical documents that achieves the same conclusion. This story is told through Barbara's (Varvara's) eyes, a young Polish woman whose father was a bookbinder to the Empress of Russia. When she is orphaned, she is taken on to serve in a lowly position as a seamstress, for which she is ill equipped. Through perseverance she becomes noticed by the Chancellor and the Empress for her useful talents; eventually becoming a "tongue"; reporting gossip, stories, actions, etc. When a young, inexperienced, and poor Catherine (Sophia); the future Empress arrives in town - a friendship develops between the two women. And indeed, Varvara also spies for Catherine. But it seems that everyone has spies, multiple ones, and who is spying on whom?
Whenever I read a story based on rulers of centuries past, I often wonder how anyone survives. The time period is vividly portrayed - war, allegiances, infidelity, punishment, fashion, Lisbon earthquake, winter, etc. It is the shifting of allegiances that creates the most intrigue.
I enjoyed the story. I feel that Catherine's development, from her arrival to ascension, was well described and her transformation was presented in a believable manner. The pace was good and the storylines, were well developed.
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4.0 out of 5 stars After reading a truly terrible young adult account of Sophie, 1 Dec. 2014
This review was written for 'The Review Diaries'.
You can read the full review here: http://reviewdiaries.blogspot.fr/2014...

After reading a truly terrible young adult account of Sophie, (the future Catherine the Great) a few months ago, I remembered that I had on my shelves another telling of that story, this one recommended by an author I adore, so I decided to give the tale another go.

‘The Winter Palace’ is an intense and gripping story told by Varvara, a Polish orphan who is taken in by the Empress and set to work in the royal wardrobe. She is hungry, exhausted, constantly belittled, and feels she should be destined for greater things if only the Empress knew that she was there living in the palace. By sheer luck and her curiosity she comes to the attention of Count Bestuzhev who trains her and presents her to the Empress as a new spy.

Varvara is a fascinating protagonist. She has a disappointing tendency to become as flat and invisible to the reader as Bestuzhev demands her to be to the occupants of the palace, but on the whole she is an intriguing view point to watch history unfold from. She sees so much, is privy to so much and it is engrossing to watch her become embroiled in the very heart of everything, privy to the Empress herself. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of Russian history will know how the events of the book will play out, but Stachniak manages on the whole to still make it fresh and new and engrossing for the reader as you are enmeshed further along with Varvara.

Stachniak has re-created the Winter Palace with an eye for detail and an ability to convey the sheer grandeur and over indulgence of the period. It is stunning in its complexity and the vibrancy that fairly oozes from the pages as you are drawn into this world with its intrigues and politics and scandals. It is a lush and opulent depiction of life in Russia that Varvara hovers on the edges of, flitting in and out of the main tale and drawing the reader ever deeper into the web of secrets and lies that make up life in the Palace.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Winter Palace - a Metaphor, 19 Jan. 2013
The rebuilding of the Winter Palace was an excellent metaphor for the changes taking place in Russia at the time. A decrepit, creaking autocracy was being replaced by the Empress Elizabeth - the moves from old palace to temporary accommodation illustrated that very well. This interim period was about to be followed by a 'modern' state under Catherine the Great. The consolidation of walls, floors and giant windows showing the improvements along the Neva - recently completed as Catherine came to power - were again an excellent reference to the emergence of Russia as a western-looking state. Eva Stachniak used this hiatus in a subtle and intriguing manner.

The broad picture as well as the detail felt authentic, and I like that in an historical novel. BUT - it was just a picture - fascinating, but not enthralling. I did not feel that I knew the narrator, Varvara Nikolyevna, very well. I did not engage with her - she was a shadow, a cipher - as no doubt she would have wished to appear in reality. She was bloodless, except where her daughter was concerned. I longed for her to find love with her husband - but it was only in retrospect that she realised how much he had meant to her.

Several reviewers have called this book boring - well, it wasn't quite that for me, but I did have to persevere with it. One normally expects a bit of passion in an historical novel - I don't mean bodice-ripping, but genuine emotion - and emotion was sadly lacking in The Winter Palace. And in Varvara herself. In the end - at the end - I felt cheated. The story just finished. Not good at all. I will not be looking for the sequel to this book, as I didn't care enough for the central character. But Eva Stachniak is an excellent writer, so I hope she'll give her readers a character to identify with in the next book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling and knife edged, 26 May 2012
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This review is from: The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great) (Hardcover)
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I'm not usually a huge fan of historical fiction, and picked this one up out of curiosity about the story's premise - that of the rise of Sophia, a German Princess, to the rank of Empress of Russia. The story is somehow both beautiful and rotten, thick with the contempt and disdain bred by a court ruled by a cruel mistress, rife with spies and gossip, where one word in the wrong place can bring ruin. The tale is told by Vavara, a Polish girl who ends up as a ward of the queen following the demise of her parents. Vavara begins as a seamstress, taken under the wing of the spy master, and eventually rises through the ranks to attend Empress Elizabeth herself. Her story really begins when she befriends Sophie, the young bride of Peter, the Grand Duke of Russia. It charts Sophie's progression from innocent and rather naïve young girl, to a ruler willing to sacrifice her greatest friends, who has learned the hard way through contempt and misuse that love is merely a luxury that can be dispensed with.

I found this story was very hard to put down - Vavara is both naïve and essentially kind hearted, and has found herself in a very unkind, hostile court, doing things that don't sit right with her. She chooses to follow her heart and serve the young Grand Duchess, following her to the very extremes of loyalty, finally learning the hard way what is truly important in life. Well worth a read if you enjoy historical fiction, and a fascinating glimpse into the past, into a corrupt and essentially rotten court. This story makes me think of a jewelled box resting casually on a pile of manure. The stench of the manure overwhelms the glittering beauty, and both sides of the coin are richly evoked by the author.

Highly recommended!
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The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great)
The Winter Palace (A novel of the young Catherine the Great) by Eva Stachniak (Hardcover - 19 Jan. 2012)
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