In the year 1740, with the whole of Europe balanced on the brink of war, a company of Austrian soldiers is sent to the village of Narutsin to defend the border with Prussia. But what should be a routine posting is quickly revealed to be anything but. The previous garrison is gone, the great house of Pokoj, where they're to be billeted, a dilapidated ruin, and the people of Narutsin sullen and belligerent. Convinced the villagers are keeping secrets - and possibly consorting with the enemy - the commanding officer orders his junior lieutenant, Klaes, to investigate.
While Klaes sifts through the villagers' truths, half-truths and lies, Drozde, the quartermaster's woman, is making uncomfortable discoveries of her own - about herself, her man, and the house where they've all been thrown together. Because far from being the empty shell it appears to be, Pokoj is actually teeming with people. It's just that they're all dead. And the dead know things - about Drozde, about the history of Pokoj, and about the terrible event that is rushing towards them all, seemingly unstoppable.
The ghosts of Pokoj, the soldiers of the empress and the villagers of Narutsin are about to find themselves actors in a story that has been unfolding for centuries. It will end in blood - that much is written - but how much blood will depend on Klaes' honour, Drozde's skill and courage, and the keeping of an impossible promise…
I decided to give this a read as I thought the setting sounded a bit unusual and I enjoy a good mystery, but The House of War and Witness delivered a far more intriguing read than I was expecting, particularly with regards to the ghosts of Pokoj.
The story is carried along for the most part by Drozde and Klaes with the perspective switching between the characters, so the story unfolds in an interesting fashion as Klaes tries to find out what happened to the previous garrison stationed at the house and Drozde learns a far wider history from the many ghosts that inhabit it.
The cast of characters that I got to know well was only a small portion of the two groups – the soldiers and the villagers – which meant that it was sometimes difficult to gauge the scale of events, but those characters who were brought to the fore were all well fleshed out with their own quirks. Drozde and Klaes make an interesting pair as they are complete opposites in terms of personality and how other people interact with them. Klaes is a very proper man who takes his role and his honour extremely seriously and is even quite prudish, whilst Drozde is a camp follower who has moved from man to man throughout her life in order to survive, dealing with the accompanying abuse this brings, but is also very independent and resourceful.
Tension is built very well throughout the book as events escalate between the soldiers ‘protecting’ the village and the villagers who clearly do not want them there, but also in interactions between individual characters, for example Drozde and the current man she is with – quartermaster Molebacher – who is a scheming abuser with a delicate temper. This is interwoven with the ghosts’ stories of their lives and how they came to their ends, but even they are holding back information and frustrating Drozde who they all seem to know. The whole book is about unravelling lies and truths and stories which conceal the truth. It took me a while to really get into it because of the interjection of the ghosts’ mini stories into the main plot, but this improved as more was revealed of the wider story and why they were being told.
The House of War and Witness wasn’t the creepy ghost story I was expecting, but it could well be the better for it.
Review by Cat Fitzpatrick
8/10 from 1 reviews
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