Having taken a course on Russian history last fall, I spent most of this book trying to match up historical fact to the happenings in the book. That said, it was a futile effort because my course focused on Russian history, not Russian intrigue. The plot follows a Polish woman who moved to Russia when she was young in the company of her parents. When she is orphaned at the age of fifteen, almost sixteen, she finds a place serving in the palace Empress Elizabeth. She becomes a "tongue," a palace spy for the Empress, and befriends Princess Sophie when the German girl arrives to marry the Grand Duke. Intrique follows.
This was a book full of much drama, and it was a good read. There isn't a ton of history in it; large historic events are only mentioned in the background, and the story mostly takes place within the walls of various Russian palaces. The Winter Palace, while giving its name to the book, is only one of the locations, and spends a large portion of the book uninhabited as it is renovated. There are plenty of descriptions of sumptuous dresses to please those enamored with royal life. There are lovers and affairs and forced marriages and plenty of backstabbing among the palace inhabitants. It has all the elements of a good historical fiction, with plenty of description of Russian foods to add a little cultural flavor (ha ha, flavor, get it?).
The main complaint I have about this book is that none of the characters ever seem to grow up. Varvara acts like she's sixteen and Catherine acts like she's fourteen throughout the entire book, which spans several decades. Varvara's daughter acts at age eight exactly the way she acted at age three. When Catherine and Varvara have a falling out, it's over something that a pair of high school students would quarrel over, not an issue that would sever a long bond of friendship between two mature women. Presumably these characters, who are playing at revolution and ruling an empire, should have a bit more maturity than that, especially after everything they've gone through. The characters are completely stagnant. Maybe there's supposed to be a message in that, something about history repeating itself to those who have not learned from it, but it comes across more as poor character management. Perhaps it would have been better if the scope had been limited to a smaller period of time, when less character change would be expected, but as it was, it just seemed strange to find adults running around pretending to be children while planning a revolution in their free time.
I also found Varvara's relationship with Egor unrealistic. I didn't know if she was supposed to hate him or love him or tolerate him, and I really hoped that there would be some other love interest somewhere along the way. There seemed to be a lot of potential people to fill that role, but nothing ever came of it. Kind of disappointing. It didn't entirely kill the story; far from it, but it would have been a good side-plot.
2 stars out of 5.