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Barbara is a Prussian bookbinder’s daughter who moves to Russia with her family so that her father can have better work opportunities. After the deaths of her parents, Barbara goes to work in the Imperial Palace, where she quickly makes herself useful by becoming a spy. She is ideally placed and of the perfect age to befriend young Sophie when she arrives in the palace to marry the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Imperial Throne. Sophie is renamed Catherine and Barbara remains by her side as she is first seen as the future of the Court, then reviled, and ultimately comes to power as the woman known throughout history as Catherine the Great.
Oh my gosh, Russian novels, even when they aren’t written by Russians, defeat me with the names. Everyone has at least two or three wildly different (to me, anyway) names! I can’t keep them straight! This one wasn’t too bad but I would still draw the occasional blank. I just had to keep reading and hope that I eventually got that character placed.
I got lost at the end as Elizabeth was dying and the power plays were starting to occur. I wasn’t even sure who Barbara was really spying on. She seemed to be firmly in Catherine’s camp but since I was confused about names, I wasn’t sure what she was reporting about her back to Elizabeth. I think this could have been corrected by cutting out some of the earlier, “daily life” stuff that felt a bit unnecessary to me, and giving more space to the complicated political gambits.
That all sounds bad and I don’t mean it to. The novel was strong and I did enjoy reading about the early life of this ruler who has pretty much remained just a name to me. I feel like I learned quite a bit about her and Russian culture of the time. Catherine does feel like a real person in these pages, neither all good nor all bad. She grows and shifts and changes in unpredictable ways. The book ends during the early days of her rule and she became even more complex to me. I expected her to be a benevolent ruler for whatever reason, but she quickly shows that she will be ruthless when she has to be. She was an intelligent woman who played her hand well to get where she was. These ladies are always fascinating subjects for historical fiction.
My complaints are actually fairly minor and I do recommend this for fans of historical fiction. With winter days upon us, it’s a perfect time to pick up The Winter Palace.
If you liked The Winter Palace, you might also like my reviews of
- The Jewel of St. Petersburg by Kate Furnivall
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Buy The Winter Palace from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC.
I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in beautiful Asheville, NC. I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you purchase merchandise through links on my site.