Sunday, July 8, 2018

Book Review: The Soldier’s Return (The Heaven's Pond Trilogy Book 2) by Laura Libricz

Historical Fiction Where Everyday Life is a Test of Survival 

Historical fiction can entertain with a look at everyday life, especially when that life is much different than our own.  The Soldier’s Return by Laura Libricz is a good example of that approach.

The book provides an unflinching look at life during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), one of the longest and deadliest conflicts in Europe.  But the wounds the novel depicts aren’t from the battlefield, but from the mercenaries who live off the land.  Life of those in their path is hard, as the soldiers take what they want – food, drink, valuables, women – and destroy much of the what’s left.  Herr Tucher, master of Sichardtshof farm, and Katarina, his maid and mistress accept this life fatalistically, doing what’s necessary to survive.  “Children had to be fed, animals had to be tended. Life had to go on.”  Famine and disease follow the troops.  Then, if that wasn’t enough, the region is also embroiled in witch hunts, with the fanatical Ralf driving “…the devil from those fallen souls. With force. With fire.

By today’s standards, the characters are difficult to like.  For example, Herr Tucher does little to protect his family, servants, and farm, while expecting them to make the best of it.  And in the eyes of the public, he’s the devoted husband while ignoring his true love, the maid Katerina.  Pieter, on the other hand, is a self-centered, drunken, ill-tempered womanizer.  But these characterizations serve the story well by conveying some of the norms of the time.  Outside the nobility, women are little more than property.  Religion is politics, with superstition and intolerance its operating principles.  Survival is for the brutal or the unscrupulous.

Clearly, author Libricz has chosen a time and place overflowing with story-telling potential, and generally, she uses that potential well.  She weaves scenes of vivid clarity and descriptions that evoke images.  “Traveling with the troops is like riding on the top of a wave. We can see where it’s going instead of just waiting for the wave to drown us.”  But at other points, the prose is terse, artificial, and detached even in action scenes.  “A quick visual survey showed Katarina the soldier had a dagger on his belt, close to her detained arm.”  Repetition of words in a sentence and thoughts and actions across sections is also a minor distraction.  For example, Pieter, the returning soldier for whom the book is named, seems to operate in cycles.  Do something foolish due to drink or his temper, get arrested, escape, repeat.  And finally, although this is book 2 of a trilogy, I expected some issues to be closed, some secondary milestone in the series to be reached.  The Soldier’s Return just seems to end.

Overall, The Soldier’s Return is a vivid account of life in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, focusing on the destruction wrought by the warring forces, the resulting fame and disease, and the accompanying witch hunts.   A bit of artificiality in the prose, some repetition, and the lack of a book-2-specific theme, however, slightly dilute the book’s overall appeal.

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