I love to read…I’ve said that before but I really love to read historical novels. Why? Well, you usually get to learn a little bit about history, you usually get a complex and layered story and invariably you get an intriguing love story. Yes, I admit it, I am a sucker for a good romance.
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is a wonderful novel that takes you through the lives of two people: Catherine, The Grand Duchess and soon to be Empress of All The Russias and her confident and ‘tongue’ (spy) Barbara.
Stachniak weaves a tale of intrigue and deception as Barbara comes to the palace an orphan and asks the Empress to honour a promise that she made to her father. Eventually she becomes a confidante and ‘tongue’ or spy for Elizabeth, the reigning Empress. At her Empresses’ command, Barbara must befriend Catherine, The Grand Duchess – and wife of the heir apparent, Peter, who is Elizabeth’s nephew.
Barbara’s relationship with the Grand Duchesses grows strong and over time they become very close. She really is the only one that the Grand Duchess can trust… or is she the only one? The life and love trials and triumphs are all lived through the eyes of a spy. Even her own life takes her in directions she could not imagine. The Winter Palace is a page-turner that you will have trouble putting down.
All the characters come alive in this novel and you find yourself drawn into the many plots and conspiracies. Whether it is the secret of a loveless and unconsummated marriage or the parade of lovers that helps the Duchess keep sane – I would even venture to say, thrive – you are always wanting to know what will happen next.
I loved this book so much that I convinced my monthly book club to read it. I hosted them with a full Russian feast to share with my friends. Alas I did not have wild boar and pheasants but I did have pickled herring, smoked oysters, caviar, pickled tomatoes with pickles, poppy seed cake as well as Russian cookies (that are good with tea, the Russian deli owner told me).
There was wine and vodka (that I forgot about in the freezer but what can you do)… We indulged our love of food and the wonderful written words of Eva Stachniak. We all had our favourite characters, palaces and we also tried to determine who the other two tongues were that are briefly mentioned at the end of the novel.
As an added bonus, I had made a very special request to the author to see if she could join our book club that evening via Skype. We discussed questions that we might ask her. We were intrigued by the époque and the characters but we didn’t want to seem too trite. The author was gracious enough to spend time with us and answered all our pressing questions:
- was there going to be a sequel (yes – Empire of The Night)
- how do you do all the research (read a lot of biographies, academic/research books and site visits)
- do you have a history degree (no a PhD in English though)
- were all the characters real (Barbara, her husband & daughter were not, with a few composite of people but all the major characters were – Empress, Duke & Duchess, the lovers and political figures)
- when & why did you come to Canada from Poland (in 1981 as a student and refugee)
The Winter Palace
by Eva Stachniak
Random House Canada
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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