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...
In 1740, a company of Austrian soldiers arrives at Narutsin, a village on the Prussian border. Lodged in Pokoj, a ramshackle ruin of a house, they discover that the previous garrison has vanished and the villagers are strangely unwelcoming to their protectors. While Lieutenant Klaes attempts to ferret out the facts behind the locals' hostility, Drozde, the quartermaster's mistress, discovers that Pokoj teems with ghosts, "unhoused creatures, delivered out of time in a second birth that was more painful than the first." Untethered to linear time, these talkative wraiths are maddeningly obscure in their intimations of a horrific incident on the horizon that threatens the lives of everyone in the town. The Careys (The Steel Seraglio) have constructed a fantastical ghost story and a suspenseful military mystery. The novel's true strength lies in its characters. Klaes is more hapless than heroic, but his humanity shines through, particularly when he's faced with his superior's murderous rage. Drozde, the true beating heart of the novel, is a fierce survivor, resourceful and independent in a world that values neither quality in a woman. As the pair strives to solve a puzzle straddling the real and the supernatural, the Careys deliver a daringly original fantasy novel.