In 1701, during the Great Northern War, two men down on their luck meet in a barn in Silesia, which at this point in history is a godless, corrupt, and war-torn country. One is a thief on the run from the dragoon regiments patroling the roads and exercising lynch law, the other a nobleman who deserted from the Swedish army. When the thief steals the nobleman’s identity, their lives become irrevocably intertwined and neither of them is able to escape his fate.
The story is flawlessly embedded into the true historic events and even takes care to make the characters speak in a style appropriate for the time period, which immediately transports the reader into the long gone world Perutz resurrects here. The setting and much of the plot itself are exceedingly grim, but the book is mainly written like an adventure story, or rather a picaresque novel, and is imbued with such humour, irony, and esprit that it still manages to come across as not too somber overall. Additionally, it contains elements of the fantastic, like a spectre collecting workers for an evil bishop or characters using magic spells, which makes it into something of a fairy tale. These supernatural events are, in the vein of magical realism, treated as nothing out of the ordinary and reflect the superstitiousness of the time. Last but not least, it is a love story that is absolutely heartwarming. The way Perutz makes all this fit together is truly impressive, and, on top of that, the construction of the plot is of such mathematical precision, that no loose ends remain and, ultimately, everything comes together perfectly. I don’t want to reveal too much of it, because I think it would really spoil the experience.
It was a challenge to put this book down after starting it, because the story is so compelling, the characters, by design mostly archetypes rather than fleshed out individuals, so easy to empathise with, and their actions always understandable. It can be read simply as an exciting adventure that can make its reader laugh, sometimes even in the face of terrible events, and at other times cry due to the inevitability of fate, or it can be admired for the depth that is as profound as wanted or needed. Most importantly though, it is a master class in storytelling, and one of the most enjoyable and enchanting books I have ever read.