The Literary Hoarders joined a group of others (as noted in the image above), gathered by Random House Canada, to read and publish their thoughts on Empress of the Night, Eva Stachniak’s second instalment in her Catherine the Great series. It was a group I eagerly joined as I had read The Winter Palace, the first in the series.
Empress of the Night begins with our finding Catherine in her final moments of her life, following her thirty-plus year reign as Empress of Russia. As she struggles to comprehend what is happening to her, she looks back with fleeting glimpses and memories on her reign, her lovers, her trials and tribulations. She remembers her greatest loves, her lovers, her favourites. And, as she lay dying, all these people have rushed to her side – here she questions, is it only to ensure her death? or to grieve over her?
“Her body is giving in. Worn in service to the Empire. Thirty-four years taking their toll.” (page 280)
While reading Empress of the Night, certain thoughts consistently came to mind: 1.) There is no denying she was a formidable woman; and 2.) being an Empress, a member of the court, whatever it may be within the royal palace it is no such life I would ever wish to lead. Catherine was unable to trust any single one person. Not her family, not any employee, not any other member of the court, no other country, nor lover – she must be careful of everyone. What a lonely life for such an enigmatic woman.
“Her punishment has only just begun. She has no more friends at court. Anyone who has dared to show her kindness has been sent away…Maids have been dismissed for whispering a few words of comfort. Varvara Nikolayevna, too, is gone, married and already awaiting a child. Varvara, who once warned: “This court is a dangerous ground. Life here is a game, and every player is cheating.” (page 42.)
The fickleness of the people and the court and even the countries was evident throughout,
“the biggest whore in Europe, they call her. Wanton. full of filth. The Empress of Russia holding her skirts up, spreading her legs from Constantinople to Warsaw, sucking in while armies.” (page 198.)
There were many such moments written where her formidable reign was described and how her wishes, her desires, one for instance of her grandson, Alexander to take over when she is gone is so easily dismissed by her son, Paul. Her wishes, her desires, her reign, were completely wiped clean as soon as she passes. Her son, Paul, whom she despised did not let his dying mother pass in peace, or do anything to honour her memory and her greatness. After her death he tried to erase everything she accomplished and spent all his time trying to erase her reign. He even had the body of his father exhumed so that they could be buried together and to make it appear that they reigned together – so much did he want to dishonour her emmory and achievements.
“You’ve always hated me, Mother. If I had a dog I loved, you would’ve tied a stone to its neck and drowned it.” (Paul -page 340.)
“God will punish you for what you have done…no woman will ever rule Russia again….I swear.” (Paul – page 347.)
There were also other great moments, such as when we read a letter written by her former “tongue”, Varvara’s daughter writing to the Empress to say that Varvara has passed. She writes to say that while her mother never speaks of her time at the court, she still goes back in her mind and is extremely suspicious of everyone and everything – problems stemming from the volatility of the court. “In the end it was anxiety that killed her, ” writes Varvara’s daughter.
It was parts such as these moments that were very grand moments in the story, but they were too few and there were too many others that were tough to get through. The discontinuous and choppy time frames throughout made for an often disjointed and uncomfortable read. Often, a great number of years would pass in the lapse of one paragraph. Most of the narrative is so disjointed and confusing that it sometimes felt like a chore. The way the narrative was jumbled it was difficult to remain engaged. Before opening the Empress of the Night, I read too many reviews of it giving quite low ratings and remarks about it, that I grew concerned. Determined however, to make up my own mind, I continued on. Many of the reviews complained about the “bed hopping”, but as I understand it, this is the second instalment of the trilogy and if the title says Empress of the Night, I’m just going to assume it’s about her passions and loves.However, it will be indeed interesting to see how the third and final in the series reads, as, while the complaints about the reflection of her loves and not of her political rule may be easily dismissed because, as the title may suggest, it would be centred around her many loves, I wondered if using this looking back while on her deathbed a wise use of this style of reflection at this time? How will the third and final instalment be written, if it were to then contain the story of her political rule? Perhaps it may have been a good use of reflecting on her political reign while on her deathbed, instead of using this technique to remember her great loves, lovers and passions?
While I did enjoy The Winter Palace more so than the Empress of the Night, I will more than likely read the final instalment as I do need to complete the series and see what the next book holds for the readers of Catherine the Great. I do hope it turns out to be a more refined, less disjointed piece than Empress of the Night as she is one incredibly interesting woman!