Varvara (Barbara in her native Polish) was a bookbinder’s daughter, but her parents’ deaths and debts force her into service at St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. The Empress Elizabeth, last surviving child of Peter the Great, just took power three years ago, in a coup that left one heir imprisoned and the next heir anyone’s guess. Varvara’s talent for eavesdropping brings her to the attention of Elizabeth’s Chancellor, Count Bestuzhev, who introduces her to the back stairs and spy holes that riddle the Russian court. Here, every writing desk has a secret compartment, no one’s mail goes unread, and loyalty is something you pay for.
When the penniless, small-time German princess Sophie arrives, a candidate for marriage to the Grand Duke, Varvara feels an immediate kinship. They’re both young, both outsiders, holding on to precarious positions at court and nearly erasing themselves in the attempt to be whatever they’re expected to be. German-speaking Lutheran Sophie practices Russian and converts to the Orthodox faith, and with her new language and religion takes a new name: Catherine. While her fiancé builds model forts and marches her up and down the corridors in the uniform of a soldier, Catherine not-yet-the-Great adapts, and flatters, and appears to be harmless… but the princess has plans. And for Varvara, whose position depends on the information she brings the Count, friendship with an ambitious princess may be a luxury she can’t afford.
Stachniak’s novel, the first of a planned trilogy, arrives at the perfect publishing moment to coincide with Robert K. Massie’s new biography of Catherine the Great, so you can compare your facts and fiction. If you’ve enjoyed Alison Weir’s or Philippa Gregory’s novels of the Tudor courts, 18th-century Russia will be a change of scenery that you’ll appreciate. All of the courtly intrigue and elaborate dresses, plus sable furs and sleighs!
Check the WRL catalog for The Winter Palace.