To far too many English readers, the Thirty Years’ War is a hazy shadow in the middle distance of history. We are aware of its presence but it has no direct significance or importance. And yet it shaped the balance of power in Europe for the following three hundred years, and was as critical a juncture for the continent as the Napoleonic Wars or the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain. It is against this momentous backdrop that Heather Richardson sets her novel.
The book opens as Magdeburg, proud bastion of Lutheran faith, is under siege by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor. Richardson draws a painstaking portrait of the domestic, commercial and spiritual life of a prosperous merchant city; of the cheerful hand-to-mouth existence of the soldier and the mercenary; of the claustrophobia of the era; of the fragility of life. It is an intimate pen-and-ink portrait on a human scale; a compassionate yet clear-sighted portrait of ordinary people, of their intelligence and determination and anxiety and fear, their courage and cowardice and venery.
Above all, the book achieves the thing that historical fiction can do better than anything else: it shows us what made these people tick. Above all, it reveals the moral and social framework of a deeply religious society. Refreshingly for a novel set amidst the atrocities of religious warfare, faith is depicted as a force for good, permeating the society, regulating the lives of the main characters with the ever-present threat of damnation, yet offering comfort and solace as well. Rather than religious bigotry there is theological debate; and throughout, the reader is shown the complexity of the interplay between personal faith, religious allegiance, political expediency, survival and hope.
The writing is quiet and unostentatious, evocative of place and time and atmosphere, easing the narrative along smoothly. At the mid-point of the book, however, time stands still to allow a heartstopping description of the sack of the city, a monument to a devastating loss of life and of a way of life, in prose of which a poet would be proud.