Warning: Some Spoilers Below
This is the other historical fiction I was reading while I was reading Wolf Hall, and musing about my reactions to both. I would still say that Wolf Hall is a step above most historical fiction I've ever read, but this wasn't bad. It wasn't earth-shattering, either. But not bad.
The Winter Palace is about a young woman employed by the Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a spy on the rest of the court, (officially, a lady-in-waiting, of a sort). But she becomes friends with the future Catherine the Great, and turns coat to report to Catherine as well, particularly when Catherine seems to be isolated and alone.
Wow, I seem to have run out of things to say fairly early in this review. Why is that?
I think it's because, while The Winter Palace is a fun read, there's little that sticks with me. Normally, I'm bursting with themes, or characters, or ideas, or moments to explore, either good or bad. In this case, very little sticks out. Varvara, the main character, never really won my affection, but she never alienated it either. I guess, in the end, I don't really care about her that much.
Oof. That's a problem. I hadn't really been fully cognizant of how little the book struck me. It was a pleasant read, but there is so little more. The court politics in the book are fine, but not that acute. In fact, many of the emotions seem muted, even the ones surrounding children being taken away. There is one good crying jag, and then a lot of bitterness - but the bitterness itself seems washed out and distant instead of burning. The book talks about grand passions, but I felt little of them. Possibly because they were supposed to be of the characters Varvara was watching, but mostly from a distance.
And the crux of the betrayal at the end seems slight. Varvara is devastated to learn she wasn't the only spy Catherine had? After a lifetime of living at court and being told be absolutely everyone that everyone has multiple spies everywhere? "I thought I was special but now I find out I'm not" just seems rather toothless in this particular circumstance.
I couldn't tell you why that is, though. Stachniak certainly shows us the repercussions for one other discovered spy, but there's no real sense of danger around Varvara. She seems to skillful at what she does, and the suspense is not effectively communicated. There's just something lacking here, a real sense of urgency and the ability to make emotions keenly felt.
I think this is an issue of the writing, which is otherwise quite competent. It just needs that extra edge to make this story compelling. As it is, it's an enjoyable read, but very little of it really distinguishes itself for me.