Eva Stachniak’s first novel, Necessary Lies, won the 2000 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. That book told a contemporary story; her follow-up, Garden of Venus, and her latest, The Winter Palace, together should establish her as a pre-eminent writer of historical fiction.
Varvara, the protagonist of The Winter Palace, is the classic heroine of historical romance: born in genteel poverty and raised with aspirations beyond her means, her parents die young and she is sent, by a wonderful twist of fate, from her homeland in Poland to the heart of Eastern European power and scandal, the Russian court. Daily life in a European court is about survival, but Varvara manages to carve out a place for herself in the Winter Palace. She soon finds herself appointed to befriend – and to spy on – the woman who will become Catherine the Great. Varvara is eventually married off and has a child; although political machinations keep her apart from Catherine, she nevertheless manages to play a key role in the transformation of a weak German duchess into one of the most powerful figures in Western history.
Historical fiction can suffer from the impulse to educate the reader, and Stachniak’s previous novel has been criticized for exactly this. The Winter Palace, however, is seamless in its depiction of a place and time, and its telling of a complicated, human story of two women in very different – and very dangerous – positions. Readers looking for a history lesson regarding Catherine the Great and the societal forces at play during her reign may in fact be disappointed: this is a story about behind-the-scenes intrigue, hidden love letters, illicit trysts, and sacrifices made for the future. What Stachniak has given us is not history, but a dramatic recreation of what the witnesses to history actually manage to see and do.