The House of War and Witness isn't the novel its cover copy led me to expect.
This isn't a bad thing. I was expecting a creepy, claustrophobic, dark, and brutal book—but while this second offering from the writing team of Mike Carey, Linda Carey (who has also written as A. J. Lake), and Louise Carey may be creepy and claustrophobic, it is also shot through with a deeply hopeful and humanist vein. By turns playful and dark, it's ultimately a story about stories: the stories by which people define themselves and the stories by which they are defined by others, and the tensions in between.
It is the winter of 1740. The small company of Habsburg soldiers who've been sent to garrison the village of Narutsin, on the border with Prussia, have no idea that Europe is about to spend the next eight years embroiled in the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa has just succeeded to her father's hereditary possessions, and to the soldiers of Colonel August's command, this should be a routine posting—along a border they don't expect to have to defend before spring.
But the routine posting is less routine than Colonel August prefers. A suspicious man, it doesn't improve his view of the situation that the villagers of Narutsin have barely even heard of the Pragmatic Sanction that legitimizes Maria Theresa's succession, or that their nearest neighbors are Prussian subjects. There's no sign of the previous garrison, the villagers are clearly keeping secrets, and the great house where they're supposed to be billeted, Pokoj, is a moldy ruin. The colonel assigns his most junior lieutenant, the awkward, formal Klaes, to investigate what dire and possibly treasonous secret the villagers are hiding.
While Klaes pokes around the locality, embarrassing himself with the carpenter's daughter and trying to bluff secrets out of the mayor, one of the camp-followers is making disturbing discoveries in Pokoj's dilapidated chambers. Drozde is a puppeteer whose current protector in the colonel's company is the controlling and malicious quartermaster, Sergeant Molebacher. All her life, she's seen ghosts, grey formless things that do not speak. But Pokoj is full of ghosts, and these ghosts are neither grey, nor formless, nor silent. The dead know things. The dead want Drozde to hear their stories.
I know about Bohemian and Silesian history only in passing—Jan Hus and the Hussite Wars, the Winter King and the Thirty Years' War, Maria Theresa's army reforms and rigidity in matters of religion—and thus I can't speak to the accuracy of picture the Careys draw of eighteenth-century Bohemian village life on the Prussian border. But the interaction between the soldiers and the civilians feels solid and deeply believable, as do the interactions between the women who follow the soldiers—of whom we meet several, including Drozde, in the course of the narrative—and everyone else. Drozde herself is a marvelous character, of a sort seldom encountered in fantasy: utterly believable as a soldier's woman, pragmatic and matter-of-fact about how she negotiates her survival in the world, her self-image—and the text's representation of her—nonetheless turns more on her role as puppeteer and storyteller, craftswoman and speaker to ghosts.
This is a welcome turn in a genre that all too often uses women's bodies as titillatory objects and fails to avoid tired sexist stereotypes when it comes to female characters. Beside Drozde's vibrant narrative presence, Klaes is rather less compelling: awkward as an officer and awkward among the villagers, one only gradually comes to realize there's more to his character than his stuffy propriety and embarrassed persistence. But it would seem the Careys have a talent for characterization: all of the characters come alive on the pages—even the ghosts.
And speaking of the ghosts. Their stories form the fulcrum around which the actions and discoveries of the novel turns. The reader comes to realize—sooner than Drozde—that the ghosts are not confined by linear time: that the stories they tell of their lives are stories from time to come as well as time already past. For some reason, Drozde is central to their existence—but although this particular narrative sleight-of-hand imparts the mood of measured, inevitable tragedy to The House of War and Witness, and tantalizes the reader with mysteries, the novel never quite succeeds in resolving the paradox at its heart. To my satisfaction, at least: I've never quite managed to shake the conviction that paradoxes are cheating. The novel's final chapter, and its final line, doesn't quite carry the emotional weight that it needs to in order to turn this from a very good book into a truly excellent one.
Dissatisfaction with paradox aside, my only other point of complaint about The House of War and Witness is its occasional tendency to present historical background with the hammer of exposition: at one point, Lieutenant Klaes must give a potted history of the Pragmatic Sanction and what it means for European affairs to the mayor of Narutsin and his family. It feels a little bit like the authors reaching out to the reader and saying "History lesson time!" But for the most part the novel manages its expository moments more smoothly.
The House of War and Witness burns slow to start, but by the end it burns fiercely. It's a compelling, accomplished novel, deft with its characters and interesting with its themes. I'm very glad to have read it—and I look forward to seeing what the team of Carey, Carey, and Carey turn their talents to next.