Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publication Date: 2014
Source: Copy provided by the publisher
The Short Version:
As she nears death, Catherine the Great of Russia recalls her life and experiences.
Why I Read It:
I liked the author’s first book a lot and hoped this second one would be just as good.
From the publisher
As the book opens, the charismatic monarch is in her final hours. From the fevered depths of her mind, Catherine recalls the fateful trajectory of her turbulent life: her precarious apprenticeship as Russia’s Grand Duchess, the usurpers who seek to deprive her of a crown, the friends who beg more of her than she was willing to give, and her struggle to know whom to trust and whom to deceive to ensure her survival.
“We quarrel about power, not about love,” Catherine would write to the great love of her life, Grigory Potemkin, but her days were balanced on the razor’s edge of choosing her head over her heart. Power, she learns, is about resolve, strategy, and direction; love must sometimes be secondary as she marshals all her strengths to steer her volatile country into a new century and beyond—to grow the Romanov empire, to amass a vast fortune, and to control a scheming court in order to become one of history’s greatest rulers..
I did enjoy Stachniak’s first book (The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great).
In that one the life at the Russian court and the early years of Catherine the Great’s life there was explored through the eyes of a palace servant. I had been looking forward to the author’s second novel about Catherine ever since. Unfortunately this one was a disappointment.
The servant from the first novel (Varvara) does make some minor appearances in this book but it’s not told from her perspective. In this one Catherine tells her own story.
It opens with Catherine suffering the stroke that would take her life. As she struggles to understand what is happening to her and as she receives medical treatment she flashes back to her life and experiences.
The result is a choppy and disconnected series of scenes in which names and nicknames are tossed out, often without context. It would be difficult for a reader who is not already familiar with Catherine’s story to follow and make some of the connections. It is also frustrating for a reader who is familiar with Catherine to have the book focus on the events and parts of Catherine’s life that the author has chosen to highlight. While much of Catherine’s effort to find a lasting love is chronicled, it is done in a way that seems distant and aloof considering that Catherine is supposed to be telling her own story. Also much of her political rather than personal life is ignored or glossed over.
While I do still recommend Stachniak’s first book, this one just didn’t work well for me.