Review: Empress of the Night

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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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 (from Goodreads).

In The Winter Palace, Eva Stachniak created a portrait of one of Russia's greatest rulers from the outside: through the viewpoint of her spy (and sometime friend) Varvara. The choice was brilliant, bringing the scheming court of St. Petersburg alive in all of stench and snow and glittering wealth. Now, with Empress of the Night, Stachniak completes the portrait by allowing Catherine to tell her own story.

I had my doubts about whether or not Catherine the Great's reign could work as novel - after all, fiction rises and falls on conflict and while Catherine's reign was eventful and she built a Russian empire whose legacy lingers in our present day, it doesn't quite have the drama of her rise to power depicted in The Winter Palace.

Fortunately, Stachniak takes a different approach. Starting with the stroke that would eventually kill Catherine and then working backwards through her reign, Stachniak builds a dreamy, contemplative, richly textured world that shifts rapidly through years and events. The sometimes fragmentary, present-tense narrative emphasizes the emotion of the moment and how a ruler must pay attention to the small details of gesture and dress, a slipped word or the wavering handwriting on a letter. These are the small things that result in survival and a name in the history books.

Of course, because it's a novel about Catherine the Great, the reader meets many of her lovers and learns Catherine's true - and often conflicting - feelings about all of them. I caught myself skimming over these parts - because Catherine's point of view is so strong, its hard to develop an independent picture of the men and so they all start to blend together. I was a bit disappointed that the reader did not get more of a sense of Catherine's love of learning and her engagement with the great philosophers of her day - there are plenty of novels that reduce women from history to mistresses and I think my appreciation for Catherine could have deepened if she had been shown considering the great questions and intellectual debates of her time.

This is not the case with Stachniak's portrait of Catherine's sprawling Imperial family. I greatly enjoyed the development of relationships between Catherine and her grandchildren and appreciated the contrast between Catherine's "old" world and their "new" world of the coming 19th century.

Empress of the Night is a richly detailed, risk taking novel that ably recreates the sweeping world of the Russian Empire and the inner landscape of a legendary ruler.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my interview with Eva Stachniak and a giveaway of her amazing book! 


Marg said...

I have often wondered why there is not much historical fiction around about Catherine the Great. So glad this one worked for you.

Jessica said...
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