The Winter Palace became a bestseller in Eve Stachniak’s native Canada during its first week of publication. Stachniak believes that is partly because, as far as she knows, it is the only historical novel about Catherine the Great in any language. How is that possible?! Stachniak has long been fascinated by Imperial Russia, has the multilingual chops to do the research, and is already working on a sequel.
And Catherine is hot right now. Robert Massie’s tome (Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Random House) is in its 12th week on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
Give this one to teen readers of Philippa Gregory and Michelle Moran who might be looking to expand their horizons. It has appeal — two young girls, both immigrants to Russia, navigating not only a foreign land but a court full of intrigue.
Adult/High School–In 1745, 16-year-old Vavara, the orphaned daughter of a bookbinder, enters the Russian court as a servant. She soon catches the attention of the Chancellor, who teaches her to spy for him. Trained to listen and report, Vavara is tasked to befriend the young Princess Sophia, who is to marry the Empress Elizabeth’s nephew, and then disclose all her secrets to the Chancellor and the Empress. But Sophia and Vavara become confidants and friends and Vavara switches sides, assisting Sophia in her transformation into Catherine and her subsequent rise to power. Narrated by Vavara, this historical novel takes readers on a grand tour of the 18th-century Russian Court. The Court is ruled by rumor and innuendo, and lives rise and fall upon the whim of the Empress Elizabeth. Decadent and decaying, desperate and hopeful, Russia longs for justice and the rule of law, but even as the peasants face grinding poverty, war, and injustice, Court members participate in deadly games of deception and treachery in order to gain personal favor with the Empress. Catherine and Vavara each navigate the palace intrigue in their own way according to their stations, but Vavara, loyal to Catherine, uses her influence as a “tongue”–a teller of secrets–to help Catherine gain power. The book ends as Catherine takes over the throne, leaving readers wanting to know more about Russian history and just how Catherine became “the Great.” Teens will look forward to the next installment of the story.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA