5. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Eva Stachniak has single-handedly restored my faith in historical fiction. The praise on the back quotes C.W. Gortner, "This novel is literary sable." I could not have formed a more appropriate description. Stachniak's lush imagery carries the novel, though it owes much to its subject, the opulence of the 18th century Russian court, as well.
Varvara Nikolayevna, a bookbinder's daughter from Poland, is left orphaned at fifteen under the patronage of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great. Varvara becomes a spy or "tongue," which is Stachniak's cleverest move (I'll explain why later). After a year or so adjusting to her new duties and girded with a fresh awareness of her surroundings, Varvara is invited to befriend a new arrival at court, Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. The Empress wants to know everything about the potential betrothed of her nephew Peter, whom she has adopted as her heir. Varvara becomes devoted to the princess, who converts to Russian Orthodoxy taking the name Catherine, and leaps through a series of hoops to land the coveted position of bride to the foolish and pockmarked Peter. Through Varvara's eyes, we come to know the royal family and courtiers intimately. With her, we watch Catherine's complex rise to power.
Varvara's position as a spy allows the intrigue of the plot to revolve around spies, gossip, and politics, and unlike other recent historical fiction, gaps are not needlessly filled in with sex to keep things interesting. In fact, for a story that involves so much sex (as both the women Varvara serves, Empress Elizabeth and the future Catherine the Great were known for their sexual appetites and numerous lovers), there is surprisingly little explicit. Sex takes the background to a political and personal foreground, a much more solid move for a novel of literary import. Unlike other spy novels, Varvara lacks the usual level of cynicism and detachment. She allows herself to trust and get close to Catherine, inverting the usual story of a spy who distrusts everyone till proven wrong. The true love in this story is not between men and women, but between women. There is a natural arc and ending place in Catherine's ascendance to the throne, the crux of Varvara's story is a little more ambiguous, but no less interesting in a character that many readers will identify with.
I found it interesting to discover that, like Varvara, the author was born in Poland, and her fondness for her homeland is evident in her sunny representation of it. While she recognizes it is less sensually impressive than imperial Russia, she deftly works in Poland's democratic election of kings, in a time when such elections were rare or unthought of (though the French Revolution would soon change that). The author currently lives in Toronto, and I am thrilled to report, is working on a sequel. Recommended to fans of historical fiction everywhere-get your head out of the Tudor gutter, let's move East.