Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great. Eva Stachniak. Random House Publishing Group. March 2014. 400 pp. ISBN#: 9780553808131.
Catherine the Great arrived to begin her training as Grand Duchess, naïve and much maligned by her future mother-in-law, Elizabeth Romanov. The pattern was set: she would appear to be a cooperative, willing wife to a future Emperor, ensure that her devout attitude was appropriately noticed, and at the same time learned about the internal and external politics, treaties, battles, finance and more that would be part and parcel of Russian government. Empress of the Night… is written in an unusual style, reflecting Catherine’s thoughts, emotions, and spirit for all that occurred throughout her training and actual rule of Russia.
Catherine and others as well see her husband as a spineless man incapable of ruling, obviously created so by his imperious mother who trusted no one, feared everyone, and therefore ruled with an iron fist smothering all disagreement and conspiracies, real or imagined. Catherine rules after the Empress’ death. But surprisingly, she spends more time reflecting on the slew of lovers who coveted not only her body but her power as well. Her fiercest passion is depicted as a love that could never survive so much intensity with Grigory Potemkin. Unfortunately for him, her foremost dedication was for her country and this decision was the cause of much hurt for him.
Catherine never boasts of her power but does frequently state that she was gifted at discerning between those who wanted the best for Russia and those who wanted the best for themselves and manifested that in scheming, traitorous ways. We read about her anxiety when dealing with the Poles, Prussians, French, and later on in the story the Turks. At the same time, she is interested in lavish spending on the one hand for her home and gardens but frugality meant to help promote the Russian economy.
Her reflections on her children and grandchildren are carefully charted because she must make a decision as to who will take over the Crown of Russia after her death. The thoughts on this topic are scathingly truthful and pragmatic. Disappointment is described as almost apathy and pleasure is clearly connected to her delight and favor. As her health declines, Catherine’s mind rages with both hatred of her ailments and haunting, torturous reflections on the past relationships that have so often denied her opinions and provoking disagreement and dissension within her most loyal servants and administrators.
Empress of the Night… is a wonderful read. Surprisingly, it is highly effective historical fiction because it refuses to only catalog lists of events and what others thought of them. It is a mental and emotional exploration of what is true and false about Catherine’s decisions on pivotal issues and concerning her relationships with multiple lovers and friends. One truly gets to know and trust this intelligent, passionate, and careful ruler, lover and friend; and the reader wants to know even more by the time the story ends with Catherine’s untimely but spiritually connected death forever. Very smartly crafted, engaging and intriguing historical fiction – a great read! Congratulations, Eva Stachniak, for writing a brilliant story in such a stylish, literate, and robust manner!