In early November 1796, Catherine the Great of Russia suffered a stroke and lay on her deathbed for 36 hours before she finally succumbed. Eva Stachniak’s second novel about Catherine imagines her spontaneous flashbacks of her life, interrupted by moments of fleeting awareness, as she lies there helplessly.
Empress of the Night covers some of the same ground as Stachniak’s The Winter Palace, only the previous novel is told from the point of view of Varvara Nikoleyeva, Catherine’s spy turned confidante, and concentrates mostly on the time before Catherine was Russia’s ruler. Varvara is only a fleeting presence in Empress of the Night, and I wonder if readers who had not read The Winter Palace would be confused by references to her.
Stachniak’s deathbed approach for this novel by definition causes it to be disjointed in narrative style and sometimes difficult to follow chronologically. The novel portrays Catherine as a figure more sympathetic than otherwise, but other characters are left relatively undeveloped.
Catherine’s memories go all the way back to her arrival in Russia as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a prospective bride for the Empress Elizabeth’s spoiled and childish heir Peter. We follow her struggles to be accepted as a future wife, to conceive, and to maintain some kind of standing in Elizabeth’s court, although that subject is covered more thoroughly in the first novel. The narrative carries us through the coup against her husband after Elizabeth’s death and the most important events of Catherine’s reign, ending with her attempts to marry her granddaughter Alexandrine to the king of Sweden and to leave her office to her grandson Alexander instead of her foolish and tyrannical son Paul.
Although this novel is interesting, I was not as drawn in as I was by the first book. The parts of the novel dealing with Catherine’s stroke and its aftermath interrupt the flow of the narrative too often. I was also taken aback by the preponderance of attention given in the novel to Catherine’s favorites, especially to the annoying Zubov, versus the actual events of her rule. The emphasis seems to lie with her personal attachments, which I frankly think is unlikely for a world ruler. I also find it hard to believe that Catherine had so much patience with some of her relatives and lovers, most of whom are characterized as being annoyingly selfish.
Since I have read a fair amount about Catherine’s life, I was able to follow the references to important events with little difficulty, but I am left wondering how easy it would be for someone who is unfamiliar to form a good understanding of what is going on. Still, I think this novel draws an appealing portrait of a complex and difficult person.
My original understanding of The Winter Palace was that it was the first in a trilogy about Catherine the Great. I am left wondering if I was mistaken, because this novel does not seem to leave anywhere for the writer to go in a third novel. Empress of the Night is ultimately much less satisfying than The Winter Palace in the depth it applies to its subject, which makes me wonder if Stachniak simply lost interest.