Being a princess—especially being a Russian princess—isn't everything Disney would have you believe. In this adroit third novel (following her prize-winning debut, Necessary Lies, and the historical Garden of Venus), Eva Stachniak has produced a strikingly readable, even mesmerizing, story of the politics of personal power in the 18th century, and the influence of individuals in the political affairs of Russia, one of the most cryptic nations in the world then—and yet today.

Following Robert K. Massie's authoritative biography (Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman) by a couple of months, The Winter Palace uses a fictional narrator, Varvara (or Barbara), to give readers a spy's-eye view of the Russian Court during the last years of the Empress Elizabeth. Catherine, whose rise to prominence was somewhat Cinderella-like—she was born a minor German princess of the small municipality of Anhalt-Zerbst—is married to the putative heir, Grand Duke Peter, and cagily waiting in the wings as the novel opens.

Taking it all in, as a spy, or “tongue,” is Barbara, who manages to get close to several centers of power in the Russian court—including the young Grand Duchess, on whose activities she has been hired to report. Barbara is Polish (like Stachniak), but close enough to the center of Russian royalty to supply details of the day-to-day court customs, intrigues and imperial hubris that surround Russian power. Many of these are weird and fascinating: For example, the Empress Elizabeth has a “Mad Room,” where she goes to watch the “amusing” antics of the insane.

Adjusting rather too easily to a court in which “life is a game and every player is cheating,” Barbara soon allies herself with Catherine. The problem is that Catherine possesses overweening ambition herself, which Barbara, in these early days, only gets disturbing glimpses of from time to time.

Stachniak has produced a novel for which readers will turn off the television. (I did.) Better yet, they will want to continue Catherine’s journey in the implied second installment. Here’s hoping the sequel will be a worthy successor to this shrewd novel of historical human folly and extravagance.

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