Eva Stachniak’s last novel, The Winter Palace, told the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power from the perpsective of her servant-turned-spy, Varvara. In Empress of the Night, the story shifts to the later years of Catherine’s reign (although we revisit her early years in flashbacks) and the point of view shifts to Catherine herself. The story unfolds entirely in flashbacks, in fact, as Catherine is in her last hours, dying from a stroke. The story revisits her youth, marriage and rise to power, as well as key events during her reign, but lingers longest on a period near the end of her life when she was attempting to safeguard the future of her dynasty by marrying her granddaughter to a powerful foreign prince and naming her grandson Alexander as heir, bypassing the son (Paul) whom she considered unworthy to rule Russia. Both political machinations ended in failure, lending an air of despair to this portrait of a powerful woman in the last months and hours of an incredible life.
This novel is quite different from The Winter Palace in that it tells the story from Catherine’s own perspective, but both are vividly realized, well-researched works of historical fiction centred around a fasincating historical figure. If I were ordering a novel about Catherine the Great to suit my tastes I might want different things emphasized than Stachniak chooses to focus on here — for example, I would want to know a lot more about Catherine’s relationship with Gregori Potemkin, which I think is one of the most intriguing royal “marriages” in European history. But in saying that I don’t want to detract at all from the accomplishment of this novel — if you are interested in historical fiction set in Russia, this novel and The Winter Palace are must-reads.