In a debut novel that will appeal to fans of romance and history alike, McDonald elegantly captures the burden of being innocent, naïve and principled in a time of war.
Set at the start of World War I, this novel centers on Lt. Erich von Zandt, a young, aristocratic, German cavalry officer. He’s part of the Second Landsturm Battalion, which is occupying Louvain, in neutral Belgium, through which German military leaders hope to stage a quick, successful assault on France before Russia can get mobilized. Early on, McDonald skillfully taps into the century-old mystery of what caused the destruction of the historic city of Louvain over five days in 1914. In an event that the Germans claim to be the result of an attack by saboteurs, Louvain is soon aflame; chaos reigns, but from his hotel room, von Zandt witnesses a scene quite different from the official version, and he’s lucky to escape with his life from the tumult. He makes the mistake of telling his superiors what he witnessed. He makes a second mistake: falling in love with Genevieve Delacroix, a local woman whose jailing gives leverage over von Zandt to those plotting a cover-up. The young officer plays along for a time while hatching an ill-conceived plan to rescue Genevieve, but he’s up against greater schemers than he imagines. Von Zandt eventually gets to tell his truth to a German court of inquiry, though his voice struggles to be heard. Throughout, McDonald creates an intriguing cast of characters, even though most of them, beyond von Zandt and his friend Lt. Gimmel, aren’t quite as fully realized. McDonald, a Marine officer of 11 years, also seizes upon how horrifying war can be, although the novel’s conclusion proves to be less than satisfying.
A compelling story about a man following his heart and his conscience, however much it costs him.