Friday, April 4, 2014

Review and Guest Post: Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak

Title: Empress of the Night
Author: Eva Stachniak
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Bantam
Publish Date: March 25, 2014
Source: I received a copy from the publisher; however, this did not effect my review.

What's the Story?:

From "Catherine the Great, the Romanov monarch reflects on her astonishing ascension to the throne, her leadership over the world's greatest power, and the lives sacrificed to make her the most feared woman in the world--lives including her own...

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."

My Two Cents:

Ever since I read "The Winter Palace," I had been dying to read "Empress of the Night" so I was so excited to be able to finally get it in my hot little hands. I was definitely not disappointed in this book but if you've read "The Winter Palace," "Empress of the Night" has a completely different feeling. Catherine the Great is an absolutely fascinating historical figure and she gets an amazing treatment in this book.

This book has a vastly different flavor than "The Winter Palace." This book felt much more dream-like and while the style took me a little bit to get used to (there's a lot about Catherine's feelings and in places it almost felt like stream of consciousness type writing), but it actually really works for this book. Catherine the Great is a looming figure in history and I thought the style sort of gave a nod to that. I was utterly entranced by the writing.

You certainly don't need to have read "The Winter Palace" in order to read and enjoy this book but it can't hurt. This book focuses way more on Catherine's later life. I also thought that it was really interesting that the book focused much more on Catherine's inner feelings and not much as to what was going on with her reign. You really do get an internal view of her thoughts and feelings. I did wish that the book went into a little bit more about her actual reign and the politics of the time but I did like getting to know her a little bit better through this book. Catherine is one of my favorite historical figures (she is so absolutely fascinating to me) but there has been very little historical fiction with her at the center. This book definitely fits a great void!

Author Guest Post:

Today, I am very excited to welcome Eva Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night among other books, to A Bookish Affair.

Researching a historical novel presents its own specific challenges, even for a lapsed academic with research in her DNA. Let my last two novels serve as examples.

As soon as I knew that I wanted to write about Catherine the Great, I gave myself three months to do an extensive research on the historical Catherine and her times. I started with Catherine’s biographies, both recent and older ones, downloading 18th and 19th century books into my e-reader, taking advantage of the fact that old rare books are being extensively digitized and made available through major library portals. I also read scholarly articles on various aspects of Catherine’s reign, her political conquests, her legislative reforms, her art collection, her gardening. I continued my research by reading biographies of Catherine’s son, Paul, her grandson Alexander, and Grigory Potemkin, the greatest love of her life.

    After biographies came memoirs and letters. Catherine the Great herself wrote thousands of letters, and many have been collected and published, including her letters to Voltaire, Sir Hanbury-Williams, and Grigory Potemkin. Some are intensely personal, others political, all reveal something about her, and preserve her voice from different stages of her life. Catherine also started writing her memoirs at least three times, but none of these attempts were ever finished. The longest attempt—and her final one—abandoned in 1794, two years before her death—begins—tellingly—with the following sentence: Fortune is not as blind as people imagine. It is often the result of a long series of precise and well-chosen steps that precede events and are not perceived by the common herd…. I read and re-read these memoirs many times, looking between the lines for any glimpse of these steps.
    These were my most important, but not my only sources. 

    In trying to understand the 18th century Russia I immersed myself in books my characters would have read: Voltaire, Diderot, Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, Holberg’s Moral Thoughts, Dr. Zimmerman’s treatise on solitude (Catherine’s solace after the death of one of her Favorites). In search for telling details I reached for travel accounts of visitors to Russia. My most favorite one became The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot. The Wilmot sisters were protégées and house guests of Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, a close friend of Catherine the Great. Newly arrived from Ireland, curious and willing to learn as much as they could, the two adventurous ladies described what they saw and experienced at a Russian country estate. Their journals and letters were a treasure-trove.

    I didn’t just read. I also travelled to places I wrote about, for I needed to position myself in the physical space where I set my novels. In St. Petersburg I walked through the oldest parts of the city, from the Nevsky Prospect to the Vasilyevsky Island, from the Winter Palace to the Peter and Paul Fortress, routes I describe in my novels. I also visited some of the suburban palaces where Catherine the Great lived—Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo—and where her traces are still very much visible. I rented an apartment on the Apothecary Lane, the very street where Varvara, the narrator of The Winter Palace, would eventually live. Museums and art exhibits allowed for glimpses of 18th century life in Russia, the details of ordinary lives, the look of a dog’s collar, the shape of a pitcher or flower vase, a child’s toy. Back home, I talked to historians, and other experts who could shed light on any aspect of my character’s lives. A doctor to whom I described Catherine’s symptoms diagnosed the Russian empress with diabetes, a detail not mentioned by her biographers, and made me see her in a new light.

    When the time came for my novels to take shape, I forced myself to step back and let myself dream, become my characters. The process is similar to what actors do when they prepare for a role. It is best done in silence and solitude, in the spot where imagination and knowledge meet. It is not a conscious process, but rather a patient ruminating on all I’ve gathered in my head, in search of a clue, a hint that would provide a focus I need. I’m waiting for something, an image, a sentence, a piece of dialogue which would stand out from these amassed treasures, becoming irresistible.

    In the case of The Winter Palace that trigger was a sentence from Catherine’s letter to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, a British ambassador to Russia and her great supporter, when she was still a mere Grand Duchess: Three people who never leave her room, and who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on, and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment arrives. The voice of a place spy began to narrate Catherine’s story and the novel took shape.

    With Empress of the Night the trigger was more complex. I knew I wanted to write this novel from Catherine’s point of view, but I had to make a decision when I wanted the story to begin. The final inspiration came from the memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski who came to St. Petersburg two years before Catherine’s death and who became Grand Duke Alexander’s best friend. In his memoirs, Czartoryski records his long conversations with Catherine’s grandson, conversations that reflect the growing tensions and festering resentments of Catherine’s family life.
    The voices of these two teenagers, their growing frustration with a powerful monarch and grandmother, made the last days of Catherine’s life vivid and irresistible. This is when I knew that I wanted  Catherine to start reflecting on her life right then. 


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