Saturday, December 7, 2013

Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 26, 2013

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.

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What is that old admonition? If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?

It's a wonderful rule of thumb, but I'm afraid abiding by it would compromise my integrity as I wouldn't be able to write much of anything and as a reviewer, well, that's kind of a problem. 

This being the case, perhaps I should take comfort in knowing honesty to be the best policy.

I came to Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night with high hopes. Her first Catherine novel, The Winter Palace, had been an interesting enough read and I was optimistic that her follow-up would outshine its predecessor. Unfortunately, when face to face with the reality, I found my confidence grossly misplaced.

In all fairness, I think the idea of an aged Catherine, reflecting on her legacy as the final moments of her life slip unceremoniously through her fingers is an interesting and creative premise, but Stachniak's narrative is so disjointed and incoherent that wading through her character's musings quickly became a first class test of endurance. After four hundred pages I should have felt connected to Catherine, but the jumbled nature of the narrative made forming any kind of attachment absolutely impossible and severely undermined the emotional impact of the novel. 

To make matters worse, I think Stachniak placed emphasis on the wrong aspect of Catherine's life. Her decision to downplay the Empress' political and public personas in favor of promoting the more amorous moments of her existence was, I felt, an exceedingly poor choice. The monotony of Catherine's steady parade of paramours left me bored and disinterested in the narrative, caring more about when I'd reach the end than how the novel would conclude. 

Much of my disappointment stems from being familiar with Catherine's history prior to reading this piece as I was well aware of how much was being omitted from the story, but my real concern was Stachniak's failure to bring anything new and interesting to the table in terms of characterization and theme. 

Despite my initial optimism, I can't say I'd recommend Empress of the Night and am not sure I will be continuing with the series. 

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Fury racks her. Ancient, vast. Fury at Serge. At herself. Fury mixed with pity plunging into sorrow, to become fury again. She paces the room; her heels strike the floorboards like musket shots... She shudders. But another voice is sounding already. Small but clear. Betrayal is like poison. A dose too small to kill strengthens you instead.
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Melisende said...

I agree wholeheartedly - cannot think what could possibly be in in two more tomes.

Anonymous said...

On the upside, I think this installment actually makes The Winter Palace look better.