Gardner’s debut historical novel, set during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s, tells the story of a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic major whose lives are intertwined from boyhood.
The novel opens in 1618 in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Sixteen-year-old Peter Erhart and his father, Jakob, the chief accounting officer for the Holy Roman Emperor’s Bohemian Embassy, make their way to a meeting at Hradschin Castle. A group of Bohemian Protestant rebels forces its way into the castle, intent on provoking an uprising by murdering Catholic representatives; the young Peter comes to the aid of Hans Mannheim, a Catholic boy who’s attending the meeting with his father, a baron and chief military adviser. The boys witness the incendiary spark that ignites the Thirty Years’ War—a complex post-Reformation conflict, fought largely between Catholics and Protestants, which resulted in 8 million deaths. After this brief meeting, Peter and Hans are riven apart, but neither forgets the encounter. The novel then revisits them in 1629, when they’re both in their late 20s. Peter is now married and has become an influential, charismatic assistant pastor in Magdeburg, Germany. He’s also caught the eye of Anna Ritter, a feisty peasant girl. Hans, meanwhile, is a cavalry major in the Catholic Imperial Army, planning to besiege and conquer the city where Peter and Anna live. How will Peter and Hans’ fleeting encounter as kids determine the future of Magdeburg? And how will Anna shape their fates?
This is a dazzling historical novel in which fictional and real-life historical characters, including Lutheran administrator Christian Wilhelm, intermingle seamlessly. Surprisingly few novels are set during the Thirty Years’ War, which will be obscure to most Americans. Gardner ably breathes life into these characters, though, and part of this talent lies in how he creates realistic, thought-provoking interplay between them all. A tantalizing example is when Peter delivers a sermon and is afterward approved to the cathedral council; Wilhelm observes the sermon, scowling, and later approaches Peter to offer insincere praise: “My compliments to you, young man. Your delivery was thorough and clear, the tone pleasant, and the content was for the most part quite edifying.” He then turns on his heel to leave but checks back, his demeanor changing, and he soon proceeds to critically dismantle Peter’s sermon: “you’re going beyond your station as a pastor when you hint at your personally preferred solutions to complex political issues.” Throughout the novel, Gardner is repeatedly able to accurately reflect subtle shifts in his characters’ emotions—in this case, Wilhelm’s biting capriciousness—by employing elegant, cutting, well-timed dialogue. He combines this with a plot that burns with suspense, intrigue, and passion, bolstered by thorough historical research. The end result is a compelling page-turner that won’t allow readers to rest before they reach the final page. Overall, this is a sharply written offering that’s thrilling and shocking in equal measures.
A gripping novel that effectively captures the predicaments of those caught up in one of history’s bloodiest wars.