The Winter Palace

Written by Eva Stachniak
Review by Jessica Brockmole

When shy Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst arrives at the Russian court to marry Empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s nephew and heir, Peter, no one suspects she’ll be anything other than the consort of a weak future emperor. No one suspects that, behind her unassuming façade, she harbors an ambition, one that will lead to history remembering her as Catherine the Great.

Varvara is the daughter of a Polish bookbinder, orphaned at a young age and brought up within the glitter and intrigue of the Russian court. Taken under the wing of the court’s spymaster, Varvara is taught to pick locks, listen for gossip, and ferret out the secrets of everyone near to the empress. When the empress orders Varvara to get close to the new princess, the two girls become unlikely friends. Instead of spying on Sophie, Varvara begins using her skills to protect her friend from the court intrigue and politics.

This is a novel steeped in the intricacies and politics of the 18th-century Russian court. In a place where one could wield power through sex and gossip as easily as through birth, Varvara and Sophie seem an unlikely pair to navigate successfully through it. Varvara, poor, and Sophie, foreign, are both uncertain of their place in the imperial household. Yet, together, they manage a coup that shakes the course of Russian history. The Winter Palace has it all – clandestine affairs, political intrigue, spirited revolution, little-known history – to make this a satisfying read for historical fiction fans.