The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason is set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before and during WW1. Its main character, Lucius, is the youngest son of an old and highly regarded aristocratic family. Daniel’s desire to study medicine is seen as odd but he rebels against his parents and is happily studying when the war breaks out. His father wants Lucius to join the army as an officer and his mother wants him to have a prestigious role but to stay safely in Vienna so, as part of his rebellion, he joins the army as a doctor and is posted to a remote field hospital on the Eastern front.
When he arrives it turns out that he is the only doctor and he has no practical experience at all because he has not yet completed his studies. He learns quickly and brutally, guided by a resident nurse who is a nun. The two of them forge a good working relationship and their role is to patch up the casualties brought to them as soon as possible and either pass them on to specialist hospitals or to return them to the front. The conditions are basic, they are cut off from the rest of the army and the weather is horrendous in the winter.
Lucius finds himself enjoying the psychological difference he can make to soldiers and becoming confident in his skills and his right to do what he thinks is best. Because of this he makes a terrible mistake and a soldier suffers dreadfully for it. Lucius has to pick himself up again but things are not the same, and then he starts a physical relationship with his nurse. Suddenly the hospital is over run and he is transferred away. Desperate to atone for his sin against the soldier he works in different places and does difficult surgery whilst always seeking his lost love. Eventually he ends up in Vienna again and when the end of the war comes he needs to traverse land now occupied by the enemy to try and find out what has happened to those he left so suddenly.
This is a beautifully written book. The author chooses his words with care and conjures up the atmosphere of the field hospital and the country in which it is situated. You can almost experience the cold and you feel for Lucius when he makes his mistake and the soldier suffers. The author is clever enough not to make this a romance or to romanticise war in any way and I found the ending very apt and satisfying.
This is an interesting and engaging novel which explores concepts such as loyalty, bravery, entitlement and suffering. It is unusual for me to read a book set on the Eastern front of WW1 and I enjoyed the different setting. It is slow paced which I liked and which I thought best suited the subject matter but any reader needs to understand that there are no action scenes despite the setting being a war. I recommend this book as a well written and unusual historical novel.