From Czech-Austrian writer Perutz (Saint Peter's Snow, 1992, etc.), a story that typically explores a big question--the meaning of identity--in that bleak East European landscape that the author has made his own. Here, Perutz takes the troubled memories of a much-admired 18th-century beauty, Maria Christine, who recalls being secretly visited nightly by her father, who was supposedly off fighting with the Swedish army, and turns them into a riveting tale of adventure with moral undertones. When a thief (known locally as ``fowl- filcher'') meets the young Swedish Cavalier Christian von Tornfeld, who has impetuously deserted from the army, the two struggle to survive in the bleak wintery countryside. Cold and hungry, they shelter in a derelict old mill, home to a ghostly miller believed to be in league with the devil. The mill is near the hellish mining-pits owned by a greedy local bishop who brutally beats the men who work for him. On a foray from the mill, the thief visits a tumbledown estate owned by a young woman who's being cheated out of her inheritance. Once back at the mill, he learns that Christian had been engaged in childhood to this very girl. Using guile and magic, the thief persuades Christian to give him his signet ring and his talismanic Bible, as well as to work in the mines to avoid execution for his desertion. The thief goes on to lead a band of thieves (the ``Desecrators'') who rob churches; and then having amassed enough money, he presents himself to the young girl as her long-lost Swedish Cavalier. They marry; he uses his money to restore the estate; a daughter is born. But when threatened with betrayal by a fellow Desecrator, he announces to his family that he must rejoin the Swedish army--a ruse that leads to his daughter's confusion and his own redemption. As much a gothic tale with a message as a good literate page- turner. Vintage Perutz.