Book review

Quick Review: The Winter Soldier – Daniel Mason

352 pages | Picador | Historical Fiction, Fiction, Literary Fiction

I received a review copy of this novel back in 2019 from the publisher but this in no way altered my opinions of the story. Apologies for taking so long to get this posted on the blog.

The digest: a very good example of accessible but multilayered and interesting historical fiction. It’s informative, entertaining, and heart-wrenching stuff. Not for those with particularly weak stomachs.

From the book’s Goodreads page:

“Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, expecting a position at a well-organized field hospital. But when he arrives, at a commandeered church tucked away high in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains, he finds a freezing outpost ravaged by typhus. The other doctors have fled, and only a single, mysterious nurse named Sister Margarete remains.
But Lucius has never lifted a surgeon’s scalpel. And as the war rages across the winter landscape, he finds himself falling in love with the woman from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine. Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the lives of doctor, patient, and nurse forever.
From the gilded ballrooms of Imperial Vienna to the frozen forests of the Eastern Front; from hardscrabble operating rooms to battlefields thundering with Cossack cavalry, The Winter Soldier is the story of war and medicine, of family, of finding love in the sweeping tides of history, and finally, of the mistakes we make, and the precious opportunities to atone.

The good:

  • Let’s start with the basics – the writing is clean and straight forward. Although I have not read any of Mason’s other works (popular as they seem to be), it is obvious that he knows his way around a story and he can effectively convey his tale with apparent ease.
  • The story itself is interesting, spanning various countries and taking place over a sustained period of time – at no point does the narrative feel old in any way. There a multiple layerseto teh story – the protagonsits history, his present, hopes for the future – but also all three frames for numerous other cahracters (explored in varying levels of depth, but all of which are engaging and some very unexpected). It is a bit grim on occasion, especially early on, and certainly deals with heartbreak and heartache, so be warned!
  • The characters are very well developed, especially our protagonist. We see them grow graudally over varying periods of time, but the author writes in such a way that I felt I could identify with these people – these doctors, nurses, war heroes and criminals – even though some of them only appeared on a couple of pages. This, no doubt, is due to Mason’s wider writing skill and worldbuilding.
  • Investigations into the human condition and the cruel impacts and legacies of war. We see horrible conditions, fear, tension, loss, romance, and the general awfulness of mankind. But this is all somewhat balanced and the final third of the book takes us in a different direction – one which is more esaily identifiable with. I won’t spoil anything that you wouldn’t have guessed from the blurb, but let it be said that I usually heavily dislike romance in stories – not so here. A final note – everything feels handled well. Nothing too grisly (though be aware that the medical conditions are indeed gruesome, nothing corrsed my personal comfort line).
  • It’s informative. Going into this I had next to no knowledge of WW1 from the perspective non-UK/US sources, but having read this novel I feel like I understand not only the War but perhaps some of the tnesions and pre-War history in significantly greater detail. I haven’t fact checked the book but Mason presents an entirely plausible pre,-mid-and post-War narrative and history, and that’s entirely good enough for me.
  • The story is evocative, and I am not afraid to say that I may have shed a tear of two at the end (in addition, of course, to the numerous periods of increased heart rate as we gain an insight into that terrible war).
  • The audiobook is also highly recommended. Excellently narrated by Laurence Dobiesz, I believe that it won a couple of awards – and rightly so!

The bad:

  • There were a few sections where I felt like there was a little bit too much padding going on. In the second half of the story we are at once matched with a powerful story of desparation… which is unfortuantely overly slow due to an episode here or there that I personally didn’t think added much to the overall narrative.

4/5. Well worth a read and a novel which I think will appeal to many readers, both those already familiar with the genre and those (like myself) with very little background in that area and even less knowledge about the historical facts it is based on. I read this six+ months ago and I still find myself thinking about it now.

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