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Empress of the Night

by Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak’s previous novel, The Winter Palace, was a well-received work of historical fiction about Catherine the Great. Narrated by one of Catherine’s most trusted attendants, Varvara, it spanned the future monarch’s arrival in Russia as a lowly Prussian princess to the coup that placed her on the throne. Empress of the Night is a sequel of sorts: the first quarter covers the same period as its predecessor, then continues through Catherine’s death in 1796. This time, however, the close third-person point of view attaches to Catherine herself.

The novel begins dramatically, with Catherine’s fatal stroke. As she lies dying, the empress flashes back on her life and 34-year reign. When the narrative flips back to the present, readers are reminded that the protagonist is becoming increasingly delirious, and the book takes on a dreamlike quality: snatches of internal monologue invade the narration, long-dead characters speak, and time becomes fluid. These passages are challenging, but the book’s structure is ambitious and sometimes moving.

Like the earlier book, this novel only acknowledges the era’s bloody unrest within the context of its primary focus: palace relationships and politics, which are presented as inextricable. Catherine’s dealings with her family, lovers, courtiers, and attendants are rarely, if ever, entirely personal. (This is particularly provocative for readers familiar with The Winter Palace, as the relationship between Varvara and her mistress is given a different interpretation when presented from the latter’s perspective.) Furthermore, as empress, Catherine shares numerous characteristics with the previous novel’s ostensible villain, her late mother-in-law: calculation – especially concerning the upbringing of imperial offspring – serial lovers, and physical decay.

The Winter Palace could be compared to the work of Philippa Gregory. More structurally complex and psychologically intense, Empress of the Night aims for Hilary Mantel. Stachniak’s writing is distinct, however, especially in vivid descriptions of sensory details: perfume, sweat, and the click of heels on polished floorboards.