I love historical fiction, particularly stories about the Tudors, and I was eager to read up on another powerful monarch, Russia’s Catherine the Great, in Eva Stachniak’s new novel Empress of the Night. Unlike Stachniak’s earlier novel The Winter Palace, which tells Catherine’s story from the perspective of a trusted servant, Empress of the Night is narrated by Catherine herself. Suffering from an illness and close to death, Catherine reflects on her life, from her marriage to Peter and ascent to power to the various challenges she faced as a woman running an empire and defending her country against its enemies. In one particularly striking scene, she complains that her male advisers seem to think all one has to do is raise their voice and Russia’s problems will be solved; they don’t understand the delicacy required in leadership. Catherine the Great was a powerful woman, and a heroine to cheer for.
There are many things I like about Empress of the Night. I like that Stachniak chose to focus on a powerful female monarch who hasn’t been given much attention in popular media. (Much as I love the Tudors, even I got tired of the endless stream of novels written about them.) I like that Stachniak’s descriptions put us right in Catherine’s head — at one point, Stachniak describes the sweat trickling down Catherine’s back during a significant occasion. Such details heighten the realism of the scene, and humanize Catherine. There are also a lot of interesting bits, particularly about the challenges of being a strong-willed woman with the power over an empire. Along with the scene I cited earlier, there are moments where Catherine is criticized for her intelligence and candour, and other times where she fights back, and cuts down another character with a sharp look and single witticism. I love these instances of Catherine taking a stand and revealing the strength that made her such an influential leader.
Despite some interesting moments, I found the book to be a very slow read. The narrative framing device detracted from the flow and the time shifts were confusing. Stachniak’s love for detail and description made Catherine’s world feel real at times, yet the writing overall felt uneven and the language at times ponderous. The story felt disjointed — the promise in the flashbacks is bogged down by the present day, and the flashback vignettes didn’t quite tie together as well as they could have.
Being completely unfamiliar with Russian history, I was eager to learn about Catherine’s reign, and about the powerful woman who’d made such an impact at a time when it was mostly men who held the power. This story however focused more on Catherine’s personal life and while that’s certainly a valid authorial choice, I wish I’d seen more of Catherine as a monarch. Even the depiction of Catherine’s personal life could have been explored better — we hear about some of her love affairs yet feel little of the passion behind them. For example, when one of her lovers reveals his true colours and breaks her heart, it hardens her resolve to be more of a leader, a woman dependent on no man. This was a pivotal moment and exciting in terms of the character development, yet we barely get a sense of the passion that drove the affair in the first place. So when the big reveal came, we knew it was significant because of Catherine’s response, but it was difficult to understand why.
That being said, Empress of the Night is a welcome glimpse into a fascinating historical figure. It has piqued my interest in the period and in Catherine herself. A bit of knowledge about the history may help when reading this book, though it isn’t strictly necessary. Catherine the Great is such a significant figure in Russian history, and Stachniak’s novel reveals the human being behind the legend.
Want to win a copy of this book and check it out for yourself? Thanks to Random House Canada, I have a copy to give away.
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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and the invitation to be a part of this blog tour!