Catherine the Great muses on her life, her relentless battle between love and power, the country she brought into the glorious new century, and the bodies left in her wake. By the end of her life, she had accomplished more than virtually any other woman in history. She built and grew the Romanov empire, amassed a vast fortune of art and land, and controlled an unruly and conniving court. Now, in a voice both indelible and intimate, she reflects on the decisions that gained her the world and brought her enemies to their knees. And before her last breath, shadowed by the bloody French Revolution, she sets up the end game for her last political maneuver, ensuring her successor and the greater glory of Russia.
I’ve written before about visiting St Petersburg this year – something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time – and my fascination with historical books set in Russia. I specifically mentioned Eva Stachniak’s earlier book, The Winter Palace, which was frequently in my mind as I wandered the royal palaces. That book was highly original – seen through the eyes of fictional character Varvara who becomes a “tongue” in the Winter Palace. When I saw that the author had another book coming out about Catherine the Great, I couldn’t wait.
This one is rather different. The book opens – as does each section – with Catherine experiencing the stroke of which she died in 1796. The book reflects on her life – starting with her arrival in Russia as Princess Sophie, the bride of the prospective tsar Peter, accompanied by her manipulative mother. Structurally, it’s a series of reflections on her life, focusing on the men who come and go, and get younger as she gets older. I’m pretty familiar with the history and characters of this period, but I must admit I did struggle at times with all the similar names – I wish I’d realised that all the characters were set out at the back of my Kindle ARC, and I do hope the publishers will put them up-front in the published version. I must admit that this book really wasn’t for me – I prefer a historical novel set against a well-researched background, which was why I enjoyed The Winter Palace so much, and the focus here is wholly on Catherine herself. The structure is fragmented, but that’s not a criticism – just a reason why a character list and timeline would have been useful. I enjoyed reading it, and the rich detail brought back memories of the locations I’d visited in their historical context, but its appeal was really only because of my fascination with Catherine – I wouldn’t really recommend it to a reader with a casual interest.
My thanks to netgalley and publishers Random House for the advance reading copy. Empress of the Night will be published in hardcover by Bantam on 25th March 2014.
I’d additionally recommend an article by the authorthat I found on the website Writing Historical Novels: it gives a fascinating insight into the different perspectives on Catherine as a ruler by Polish and other Western biographers, and about her research. It raises the question “How did she manage to transform herself from a minor Prussian princess who arrived in Moscow at 14 without a word of Russian at her disposal into the powerful autocrat of All the Russias?” – which is one of the reasons why I find Catherine so endlessly fascinating.