Published by Bantam
Publication date: March 25th 2014
Power lies in hearing what is not meant to be heard. In understanding what motivates those who plot against you. In knowing what could make them turn about-face, come to your side.
Empress of the Night, Eva Stachniak’s new historical novel about Catherine the Great, begins at the end by opening with the last days before her death. Catherine is in the 34th year of her reign and is 67 years old. As she lays stricken by a stroke, leaving her unable to talk, her mind goes all the way back to the early years of her marriage to Grand Duke Peter III—a man who was raised in Prussia and sees his homeland as a backwater and his bride as a nuisance. The Grand Duke has no interest in his new young bride and Sophie (her birth name) is left to navigate the hostile waters of Empress Elizabeth’s court. When after five years of attempting to become pregnant Catherine finally gives birth to a son, there is much speculation that the child is not Peter’s. Still, it is a son and the child is taken from Catherine by the Empress to be raised her way, creating a split between the child and mother that never heals, to the point that Catherine chooses her grandson to succeed her, doubting that her son is fit to rule.
This is just a small slice of the many events and rumors that swirled around Catherine in her lifetime. Through exhaustive research Stachniak is able to use history as a foundation for the more intimate aspects of Catherine’s life. The historical facts are there and she builds on them to present a picture of a complex woman who, many said, ruled like a man. At the same time such strength did not always serve female rulers well and Stachniak is careful not to give into the more salacious (and ludicrous) rumors surrounding the ruler’s life. Instead, she accomplishes a more difficult task—imparting the human aspects of a woman who believed in her destiny and took whatever measures she needed to fulfill it. We hear of her loneliness and are given the sense of what such tremendous power does to a person’s private life. How to know who really loves you and who is simply angling for gifts or a new estate?
Even if I am slightly biased towards this monarch due to her name, Empress of the Night, is a prodigious work of both fact and fiction. The events of Catherine’s reign have been widely covered by biographers and while Stachniak does include important political moments in the novel, it is something much more. Her writing inhabits the Russian mindset and that of a great woman determined to bring her country the same level of respect given to their counterparts in the West. It is not just an engrossing read from beginning to end but also imparts some of the sadness that comes from having such enormous power and responsibility yet having to wield it alone.
*Be sure and check back in on Wednesday when I’ll have a fascinating post from author Eva Stachniak about Catherine’s modern day beliefs about ruling her country!