Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak
|Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A dying Catherine the Great looks back at her life, husbands and lovers in this the second of the author's Catherine the Great novels. The content is fascinating although the way it's presented is sometimes a little distracting.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 5131 KB||Date: March 2014|
|Publisher: Traverse Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Russia, 1796 and the ruler is dying from a stroke. As each new symptom hits and her life recedes a little further she remembers how she came this far. Her recollections begin when she was Sophie, Princess of Anholt-Zerbst, sent to young Russian Grand Duke Peter as a marriage prospect. The wedding plans go through and her new life is accompanied by a name change: Princess Sophie becomes Catherine Alekseyevna but history will christen her Catherine the Great.
This is the second of Polish-born, Canadian-resident Evan Stachniak's Catherine the Great novels. The first (The Winter Palace) was told by another Sophie: the young poor Polish girl who becomes Catherine's confidante, renamed Vavara. In Empress of the Night the viewpoint and narrative are both Catherine's own.
Curiously as she was Russia's longest ruling Czar/Czarina, Catherine wasn't even Russian but Prussian. Eva uses this fact to its full advantage as, at the beginning, she introduces us to the problems the then Sophie encountered in trying to become Russian in outlook and custom while under the almost megalomaniacal tutelage of her future mother-in-law Elizabeth. (A lady with her own agenda!)
Catherine has become known for her healthy conjugal appetite and Eva doesn't side step it but there's nothing overly graphic that will frighten the horses (and no mention of horses in that way either – if you know what I mean and remember the rumours).
It's well-seasoned with historical figures including Grigory Potemkin (of posthumous battleship fame) and, of course, her first husband, Peter the Great. Having said that, anyone wanting to read of Peter's achievements and challenges as ruler may have to go somewhere else. Through Catherine's eyes he's a weak, snivelling waster who doesn't warrant any positive comment, let alone detail. Talk about marital bitterness!
The nuggets we are given are enthralling as we learn about Russia's then ongoing conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and the Poles while marvelling at Catherine's devious manipulation. It's not only the nation's survival Catherine must ensure.
Talking of bitterness, I have a bit of whinge: I'm prepared, as always, to believe it was just me but although I loved reading about the courts, the manipulation and the politicking, I felt the novel was spoilt by being overly episodic. I enjoy narrative that jumps through moments in time, but here we don’t seem to linger anywhere long enough to get a feel for most of the other characters. This is indeed Catherine's show and not to be eclipsed by anyone else. This may be consistent with the butterfly-short concentration spells of a dying mind, but in this case it comes at the expense of depth. The way that Eva uses the present tense also seems a little curious (and sometimes jarring) in places.
If we could have stayed in each scene longer and the tense thing was more consistent, this would indeed have been a book as worthy of Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel as the book blurb suggests. Eva is undoubtedly talented and, looking at the scenes that worked, she has it in her to at least equal these two mistresses of hist fict, so perhaps the next novel will be the one?
We'd like to thank Traverse Press for providing us with a copy for review.
Further Reading: If this appeals and you'd like to get to know the real Catherine, we recommend Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie. It is non-fiction but Catherine had the sort of life that reads like a story. If you'd rather stick to fiction, then we just as heartily recommend The White Queen by Philippa Gregory or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel so you can make your own comparisons.
You can read more book reviews or buy Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak at Amazon.com.
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