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"Catherine the Great" By: Robert K. Massie

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"The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak

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Star Tribune photo illustration using Associated Press file photos

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THE WINTER PALACE

By: Eva Stachniak.

Publisher: Bantam, 444 pages, $26.

Review: Stachniak blends historical fact with imagination, and the result is a lovingly rendered and sumptuously detailed look at a fascinating life.

CATHERINE THE GREAT

By: Robert K. Massie

Publisher: Random House, 656 pages, $35.

Review: A masterfully researched work of nonfiction by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

REVIEWS: "The Winter Palace," and "Catherine the Great"

  • Article by: ANDREA HOAG
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2012 - 4:19 PM

Reading about the life of the charismatic virago who brought art and culture to Russia is perfect for these early-to-dark evenings. And, lucky for us, there are two new books about Catherine the Great out this winter: one fiction, one non.

Readers desirous of going the traditional route with a biography will delight in Robert K. Massie's masterfully researched "Catherine the Great."

Massie's earlier biographies, including "The Romanovs" and his Pulitzer-Prize winning study of Peter the Great, cemented his reputation for striking a happy balance between rich historical detail and engaging storytelling.

Those among us who prefer their history enveloped in layers of frothy tulle and hand-tatted lace will delight in a frisson-filled fictional take on the life of Catherine in "The Winter Palace," by newcomer Eva Stachniak.

The author chose a thrilling point of view, opting to tell Catherine the Great's story through the eyes of Varvara, a servant in the royal household. In this way, readers are treated to a firsthand account of the young princess' slow ascent to the throne, a path deliciously strewn with discarded lovers and sanguine court intrigues.

Catherine was a shy 14-year-old German princess when the Empress Elizabeth hand-picked her to be the wife of the future heir to the Russian throne. The canny young woman quickly adapted to the foreign land, embracing her mystical new religion and an unfamiliar language in hope of winning the hearts of her new countrymen.

Her strategy worked.

Though technically historical fiction, and with all the baggage that distinction carries, "The Winter Palace" nonetheless showcases Stachniak's flair for blending biography and fact with sumptuous detail.

Her research gleams on every page, whether she's writing of Russia's glittering crown jewels or the distinctive personalities of each purring palace feline strutting through the chilly corridors.

Here, for example, the Empress Elizabeth rings in the new year in marvelous royal fashion: "Lit by five hundred candles, the walls of the Amber Room, a gift from the Prussian King to Peter the Great, glowed with golden flecks. The air was thick with perfume, snuff, and spirits. A small army of footmen hovered by the door, like crows on carrion, swooping on the slightest traces of sawdust carried in from the restrooms."

Lovingly rendered vignettes like this make "The Winter Palace" a beautiful piece of escapism rooted in fact.

No matter whether readers choose Massie or Stachniak to get to know the divine Catherine better, neither author is likely to disappoint. Better yet: Why not read both?

Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic.

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