Robyn Reviews: Vespertine

‘Vespertine’ is the third young adult fantasy book by Margaret Rogerson, author of ‘An Enchantment of Ravens’ and ‘Sorcery of Thorns‘. Unlike her previous works, ‘Vespertine’ is the start of an intended series – although it works as a standalone, telling a complete and intriguing story. Chronicling the life of a nun who can see spirits, parts are reminiscent of stories like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Ninth House‘, but overall ‘Vespertine’ is a unique and compelling tale set in a creative world with huge potential for the rest of the series.

In Loraille, the dead do not rest, rising as vengeful spirits with an insatiable hunger for the living. Those who can see spirits are bound to become nuns – cleansing the bodies of the deceased so that their spirits can pass on – or soldiers, protecting the masses from the undead threat. Artemisia is training to become a Grey Sister – but when her convent is attacked by possessed soliders, she finds herself awakening an ancient spirit to protect it. The spirit threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard – but with an unknown threat controlling Loraille’s dead, working with the spirit and becoming a Vespertine might be her only change to save Loraille. As Artemisia travels across Loraille, she and the spirit start to reach an understanding. But the more Artemisia learns – and the closer they become – the more she’s forced to question everything she’s been taught, including whether she’s on the right side.

The worldbuilding is one of the best parts of the book. Loraille is run by a religious order worshipping the Lady and her chosen Saints – seven women who defeated the Revenants, the strongest of the undead spirits, and bound spirits to their will. The Saints are all long dead, but their power lives on in relics – objects containing a bound spirit, allowing its power to be harnessed. Rogerson avoids info-dumping, yet the story is never confusing – the worldbuilding is woven seamlessly into the narrative, with enough revealed to allow understanding yet plenty kept in the dark to maintain a sense of intrigue. Loraille feels European in inspiration, with the Clerisy sharing aspects with the Catholic Church, but there are enough differences to feel fresh. The system of dead spirits and their differing powers is also well crafted – simple in concept, thus easy to understand, but executed with impeccable atmosphere. The overall effect is a spooky book, dark in places, with a perfect combination of mystery and exposition.

Artemisia is a solid main character, but the best part about her is the contrast between her personality and that of the spirit she binds herself to. Artemisia is a survivor. Possessed by a vengeful spirit as a baby, she was rescued by the nuns – but only after her entire family died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Artemisia physically scarred and the rest of her community blaming her for their deaths. As a result, Artemisia is feared and avoided, with few friends and little knowledge of how to interact with others. She’s prickly and stubborn, with a reckless disregard for her own safety – but she’s also caring and loyal, as much as she tries to hide it. The spirit is the first companion Artemisia has ever really had – and whilst neither of them trust the other, the way their relationship grows, driven by mutual loneliness, is incredible to read. Its amazing how Artemisia’s view of herself finally starts to change as the spirit points out how differently she regards herself and others.

Unusually for a young adult fantasy, there’s no romance in this book. There are several characters who, in other books, might have developed into love interests, but Rogerson chooses to instead focus entirely on the underlying plot and Artemisia’s growth and development as an individual. Personally, I loved this – it’s nice seeing a story with the confidence to stand alone without relying on a romantic subplot to add interest, and it never feels necessary. If you’re not a fan of romance, this is definitely the book for you.

Rogerson has mentioned that there will be a few edits to the pose and flow in the final version that haven’t appeared in the advanced copy. As it stands, ‘Vespertine’ is an excellent read but one that doesn’t quite have the magic of ‘Sorcery of Thorns’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing – but it’s possible that with edits that magic will be captured again so I’m excited to read the final version when it publishes.

Overall, ‘Vespertine’ is an intriguing tale about ghosts, survival, and secrets set in a compelling alternative medieval Europe. Recommended for fans of creative young adult and adult fantasy, books without romance, and exceptional character growth.

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Hardback: 5th October 2021


Robyn Reviews: Infinity Son

Jackie’s thoughts on this book can be found here

‘Infinity Son’ is the fantasy debut of well-known young adult contemporary author Adam Silvera. As is perhaps to be expected, it reads much more like a contemporary than a fantasy novel – and unfortunately, it also highlights how unlikeable protagonists can detract from the entire reading experience.

Brothers Emil and Brighton grew up in New York obsessed by the Spell Walkers, a vigilante group blessed with magical powers. The Spell Walkers defend magical creatures from specters – however, in doing so, New York has become embroiled in violence and brawls. Brighton, an amateur YouTube vlogger, has always wanted to manifest powers of his own and join the Spell Walkers. Emil just wants his brother to be safe. However, when the time comes, it’s Emil – not Brighton – who manifests powers.

The heart of ‘Infinity Son’ is the relationship between the two brothers. They’re total opposites – Emil is quiet, studious, and has no wish for the spotlight, whereas Brighton is entirely driven by his pursuit of fame and glory. They love each other, but Brighton looks down on his brother for many reasons, and Emil’s love for his brother blinds him to Brighton’s many flaws.

The chapters alternate between Emil and Brighton’s perspectives. Unfortunately, Brighton’s chapters are a chore to read simply because Brighton is so unlikeable. He’s an exceptionally selfish person, only interested in fame for himself, and enormously shallow. He’s a teenager, so some emotional immaturity is to be expected, but it doesn’t make his head a pleasant place to be. I found myself tolerating Brighton’s sections only to get to Emil’s.

Emil is an absolute sweetheart of a character. He loves phoenixes, and all he wants is to live a quiet life with his family, study phoenixes, and meet a nice guy. The sudden development of celestial powers throws him completely out of his comfort zone, and his journey learning to manage them is incredibly relatable. He also has a very sweet will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot which is endearing to read about and a nice contrast to the difficulties elsewhere in his life.

The setting and worldbuilding has huge potential. Celestials have powers connected to constellations, but these powers can be stolen and used by others if someone takes their blood. ‘Infinity Son’ is the first in an intended series, so the magic system is barely explored, but it’s one of the strongest parts of the book. However, even for a debut I think it’s under-utilised. New York is barely different with magic to the New York we know without magic, and the phoenixes – extremely cool creatures who feature surprisingly rarely in modern fantasy – play a much smaller role than they could. It definitely feels like a contemporary novel which happens to feature fantasy elements, instead of like a fully-fledged fantasy novel.

Overall, ‘Infinity Son’ isn’t my sort of book, but it will likely appeal to fans of contemporary young adult novels looking for something a bit different. The potential is there for a sequel to be much stronger.

Published by Simon & Schuster
Paperback: January 14th 2020

Robyn Reviews: Five Little Liars

Five Little Liars is pitched as I Know What You Did Last Summer meets One of Us is Lying, and the similarities are immediately apparent. Unfortunately, this just isn’t gripping in the same way. I’m not sure what was missing, but I wasn’t engaged by the plot and – with the exception of Tyler, who deserves better – didn’t care enough about the characters.

The story follows five students – Ivy, Cade, Tyler, Mattie, and Kinley – taking a summer psychology course taught by Dr Stratford, the single most unpleasant teacher in existence. I hated him to the extent that I wasn’t sure why he was allowed to be a teacher – the way he treated his students was emotionally abusive at best. The five students aren’t friends – Mattie is from out of town, Ivy the once-Queen Bee who’s fallen from grace, Cade the millionaire’s son who’s quite frankly unpleasant, Kinley the nerd, and Tyler the delinquent. However, they are forced together when they all become involved in the murder – and subsequent cover up – of Dr Stratford.

The premise is excellent, with the tension hinging on who’s going to crack and tell first. However, much of that tension is lost because the story doesn’t make the reader care enough about the characters. I wanted Tyler to be safe, but the others almost seemed to deserve to be caught. They all had secrets of their own and – as much as many of them were in dreadful situations which explained their terrible decision making – I didn’t like them enough to worry about their fate. Their interactions with each other also suffered from several tropes of young adult literature, with insta-lust if not insta-love distracting from the plot. As a bisexual, one of my biggest pet peeves is the bisexual teenager who’s unfaithful to their partner, because it perpetuates the harmful stereotype that bisexuals are more likely to cheat. When it comes amongst other LGBTQIAP+ representation I can allow it, but when it’s the only representation in the story I become very uncomfortable.

There are strong aspects. Tyler in general is an excellent character, and I liked his interactions with his brother, Jacob, and with Kinley. Kinley is an interesting if hard to like character, and I like the exploration of parental pressure – the lengths her dad goes to make me very uncomfortable, but I suspect that’s the point. In fact, part of the reason that this review comes across as very harsh is because there was so much potential. It was an excellent story idea and, whilst the characters are tropes, they could have been fleshed out into very intriguing people. I also thought the final chapter was a great way to end. However, the pieces never clicked together, and the characters never quite elevated themselves from tropes into full people.

Overall, this is a good idea lacking somewhat in execution. It’s unfair to compare books, but this compares itself to One of Us is Lying and just feels a bit like a knock-off version. For those looking for a quick young adult mystery it provides entertainment, but there are better options out there.

Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of my review


Published by Simon & Schuster
Paperback: July 7th 2020

Robyn Reviews: Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of Thorns is young adult fantasy at its finest. Elisabeth, an orphan girl raised in one of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, knows two things – books are dangerous, and sorcerers are evil. She wants nothing more than to become a warden, protecting Austermeer from the powerful grimoires contained in her library. However, when she becomes the only witness to an attack on the library, her life gets infinitely more complicated.

Elisabeth makes a fantastic protagonist. She’s smart and determined but also incredibly naïve, jumping to conclusions and regularly acting without thinking. Having been raised in a library, she knows little of the real world and the consequences of that can be hilarious. She’s also one of the few female protagonists I’ve ever seen described as tall – a refreshing change from the tiny, innocent looking protagonists the genre seems to favour. Elisabeth’s friendship with Katrien was lovely, as was her evolving, convoluted relationship with the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn – her only ally, but also a man who has to be evil – after all, all sorcerers are. However, her best interactions were with Silas, Nathaniel’s enigmatic assistant who’s far more than he initially seems.

Nathaniel contrasts Elisabeth brilliantly. A confident, flamboyant bisexual sorcerer and Austermeer’s most eligible bachelor, Nathaniel saunters through life like a man who has it all – but he’s the only survivor of the Thorn line, a famed family of necromancers responsible for some of the worst crimes in Austermeer’s history. How much of Nathaniel’s personality is authentic and how much is simply to distance himself from that legacy is unclear – but what is clear is that he has a heart of gold and a sense of humour to match. His quips and anecdotes add a much-needed lightness.

This is a young adult fantasy but successfully avoids all the pitfalls of the genre. The romance is slow-building and believable, adding to rather than distracting from the main plot. Elisabeth has aspects of being a ‘Chosen One’ but is definitely the least powerful of the three main characters, so it doesn’t feel like a cop out. The plot has predictable elements but also completely unpredictable ones, with an ending that’s hopeful but not without sacrifice. Yes, there are tropes, but every part feels fresh enough to be highly enjoyable – a credit to Margaret Rogerson’s creativity and writing.

The setting is the highlight of the book – how could a book about magical libraries fail to appeal to bookworms? The idea of dangerous grimoires needing to be locked away and guarded by wardens with swords is excellent. I also like the magic system, with its clear limitations and constraints – there is a price to being a sorcerer after all, and any magic takes time and a great deal of effort.

Overall, this is one of the best examples of young adult fantasy that I’ve read. It takes both familiar tropes and original concepts and combines them into a beautifully readable novel full of likeable, three-dimensional characters and a world you want to live in. Highly recommended.


Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
Hardback: 13 June 2019
Paperback: 23 July 2020

Book Review: Infinity Son

Infinity Son, by Adam Silvera, is YA fantasy fiction that may appeal most to readers who enjoy the action in on-line video games. Set in a world where certain people are born with a variety of extraordinary powers (celestials), and others who choose to acquire powers through forms of cruel and risky alchemy (specters), the plot evolves through numerous violent and bloody fight scenes. There are goodies and baddies with several characters moving between the warring factions.

The protagonists are two brothers who, when the story opens, are on the eve of their eighteenth birthdays. Brighton is the outwardly gregarious one. He has done well academically and is looking forward to his imminent departure from the family home in New York for college in Los Angeles. He is also eager for internet fame, working hard at garnering attention for his YouTube channel and associated social media accounts. He has long dreamed of attaining powers such as those wielded the Spell Walkers he idolises. He follows the group’s vigilante activity as these young celestials try to rid the world of specters.

Brighton’s brother, Emil, is happier out of the limelight his brother craves. He works at a museum gift shop, hoping soon to be moved to a department specialising in phoenix history and preservation. Magical creatures such as these are threatened by the ambitions of the specters who hunt them for blood and body parts to add to potions that enable or increase their powers.

The more ordinary citizens of the city are wary of the cycle of violence that surrounds both celestials and specters. With politicians preparing for an important election, bringing the powered beings under control has become a key issue. Such a threat has driven many specters and celestials underground. When captured they are forced to assist the law enforcers by helping create weapons that can harm their peers.

A constellation known as the Crowned Dreamer has arrived in the night sky. This increases the powers of the celestials. Brighton hopes it will ignite his own latent powers which he is convinced will soon manifest.

The brothers attempt to join a social gathering where Brighton hopes to capture footage for his channel. Instead, both Emil and Brighton are drawn into a war that will change their views on the Spell Walkers and what their heroes are risking lives to achieve.

Beneath the endless battle scenes is desire for revenge, power and acceptance. A reluctant hero refuses to compromise his principles resulting in additional deaths and associated guilt. He is asked to: save others, save his family, save the world, save himself. Unnamed and unnumbered characters die to enable key people to somehow survive and fulfil quests. The battles fought are video game pastiche. There is angst and soul searching about the hand that has been dealt but little concern is voiced for the many unknowns killed.

Brighton’s attempts to control the narrative through social media PR was an interesting thread that felt contemporary. Too much of this story, though, was first person shooter with a change of background scenery and evolving objective.

Some interesting ideas are explored but few felt original. Supernatural powers are harnessed as weapons. Venal politicians do dangerous deals for personal benefit. Characters discover that those who raised them are not their birth parents. Ordinary people are encouraged to fear those who are different. Love interests offer a chance for redemption. Loss increases power but shadows principles.

The denouement was fitting given how the story is developed. This is the start of what I believe is to be a series and there is plenty left for the author to work with. However, unless he comes up with something more than battles between troubled or egregious beings, I’m not sure I would want to read further. The young people the book is aimed at, who have perhaps not yet read as much fantasy fiction and enjoy descriptions of fights and mayhem, may find it more compelling.

My copy of this book was provided by my daughter who was gifted a proof at a convention.

Book Review: Our House

I had been eager to read Our House since I heard Louise Candlish speak at a Greenwich Book Festival event last year. I now understand why so many readers have enjoyed this cautionary tale.

Set in an affluent and still upcoming residential street in South London, where house prices have quadrupled in a decade and aspirational families enjoy good schools and a sense of like-minded community, the story is told from the points of view of a middle aged married couple who have recently separated. Unwilling to sell the valuable family home, which in their time living there has been subjected to near constant ‘improvement’, they agree on what is known as a birds nest arrangement. At weekends the husband, Bram, will sleep at the house and look after his two sons. During the week the children’s care will fall to their mother, Fi. A small flat is rented nearby offering a bed for whichever parent requires it. Thus the children may always sleep in their own rooms, cared for by a loving parent without having to shuttle between residences to fulfil custody agreements. Each parent is free to do as they please when in the flat but will respect the children’s need for constancy and stability in their home.

This apparently amicable arrangement is shattered when Fi returns from a few days away to discover strangers moving into the family home, which has been emptied of all possessions. Doing their best to deal calmly with a distraught women on their moving day, the new couple assure her that they have legally purchased the property. A neighbour steps in to support Fi while lawyers are tracked down and the situation clarified. Bram cannot be reached.

Events of the preceding months are then recounted. Fi’s side of the story is told in the form of a transcript from a popular and sensationalist podcast featuring crime victims. Bram writes his version of events in a lengthy word document, describing it as his suicide letter.

The picture that emerges is one of a marriage where each party is striving to create what they regard as an ideal. Each recognises the attractions of the other yet requires them to be different.

Fi was drawn to Bram for the excitement – he is the fun parent for their boys – yet tries endlessly to tame him. Bram understands the stability Fi offers but struggles to control his need for occasional release. Fi turns to her close circle of female friends for day to day support. Bram keeps to himself the guilty secrets he accumulates as he finds outlets for his frustrations – ultimately these lead to tragedy.

There is a reason why books like this sell. The writing is engrossing and easy to read. The structure and flow are well balanced. The plot is fast moving with an underlying tension that encourages questions and second guesses. The twists and turns encourage the reader to turn the next page.

I did find the middle section – the why such a mess could occur – irritating, despite it being well enough developed. I struggled to accept that such a course of action would be contemplated by Bram despite the reasons given (as an aside, in the past I have been informed by authors that such difficult to believe situations have been based on real events, so what do I know?). It is fiction – I accepted to move on.

Threads are brought together in a devastating denouement, again with a few details that I struggled with given previous character development. The ending – the final lines – bring with them an ‘oh shit’ moment, although by this time I had little sympathy for the protagonists given their previous actions. I was left to ponder motives and consequences. I wonder why, as a reader, I insist on taking a story intended to entertain so seriously.

This is a well constructed and chilling domestic thriller that does a fine job in making the reader question if events could truly happen, especially the selling of a house without one owner knowing. I read it in a day which demonstrates how addictive such a tale can be.

Our House is published by Simon & Schuster

Book Review: The Butchers of Berlin

The Butchers of Berlin, by Chris Petit, is a crime thriller set in the city in 1943. Germany is no longer in ascendancy. The effects of the Second World War have resulted in a thriving black market and deprivation for all but the wealthy and powerful elite. Fear and betrayal are rife as the authorities work towards their stated aim of creating a Berlin that is ‘Jew free’. The remaining population have set aside many of their peacetime principles in order to survive.

The protagonist is August Schegel, the son of a wealthy English aristocrat now married to a German businessman. Schegel is a junior detective despised by his boss. Working in financial crime he cannot understand when he is called upon to investigate a double homocide. As the victims appear to be Jews, found dead on the morning of a major exercise to round-up and deport all remaining ‘undesirables’, he finds it odd that any effort is being put into an investigation.

There is an atmosphere of distrust amongst Schegel’s colleagues who are eager to provide the results that will please their superiors. When Morgen, an SS officer, is assigned to assist Schegel it is unclear what is now required of the younger man. Schegel is aware that there are irregularities in the investigation and that corruption is rife at all levels. Attempting to uncover the truth would be a dangerous path to take.

Sybil Todermann, a Jewish seamstress, has escaped the mass round-up and is in hiding with her girlfriend. They have friends in common with Schegel but all favours come at a price. The women now require false papers yet this puts them at the mercy of dangerous men. When more bodies start appearing, grotesquely mutilated and some containing forged currency, paths intersect.

In a vast slaughterhouse in the city Schegel finds what he believes is a killing room for people rather than animals. The shortage of manpower, food, and the dehumanisation of the Jews has allowed sadists to get away with barbarism. The Gestapo become interested in Schegel’s findings as do informers originating from several of the occupied territories. Who their taskmasters are remains unclear. Morgen is still not sharing with Schegel what his remit may be.

This is a lengthy story with a convoluted plot and disturbing desriptions of calculated viciousness. That it reads as a true depiction of life at the time makes for discomfiting reading. The writing is assured, the threads well constructed and managed, but still I struggled to engage. The accuracy of the horror and knowledge that so much of what is related happened detracted from my ability to feel entertained.

Reading a war story from the German perspective was interesting, also the views of the English, Irish and Americans who in some way supported the regime. I admire the author’s ability to craft a convincing tale even if I struggled to quell my revulsion and enjoy the unravelling of the mystery. It is a timely reminder of the true horror of war and the depravity such conditions unleash.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Book Review: Then She Was Gone


Then She Was Gone, by Luca Veste, is a crime thriller set in Liverpool, England. It starts with a father walking his baby daughter through a park where he is attacked and the child taken. At first the police are sympathetic, as you would expect under the circumstances, but when their investigations uncover apparent inconsistencies in the man’s story suspicions turn towards him.

A year later and two detectives from the Major Crimes Unit, Murphy and Rossi, are asked to look into the disappearance of a local man, Sam Bryne. They are to do what they can to keep their enquiries from the press due to Sam’s profile. He is a prospective MP, wealthy and privileged, and there are aspects of his life that his well connected family do not wish to share.

Murphy and Rossi question Sam’s staff, visit his house and talk to his parents. They discover the uncomfortable truth of what is being left unsaid. When a body is found, and then another, the full extent of Sam’s proclivities are revealed.

I found the writing a little simplistic at first but the structure and plot soon drew me in. There are chapters written from the point of view of the killer and the timeline goes back to explain why they seek revenge. The attitudes of many of the characters are depressing in their realism. There is casual racism, an inbred sense of exclusive entitlement, and an attitude towards women that is rarely acknowledged in such a blatant way.

This is the fourth novel in the author’s Murphy and Rossi series although the first that I have read. There are references to their past adventures but the story works standalone.

An engaging read with some satisfying twists. For fans of crime fiction, this one is for you.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Gig Review: Jason Hewitt in Bath


Yesterday evening I attended my first book event of the Autumn season. With two of my children now up at university I have more time to treat myself to such outings. This first excursion was to Toppings bookshop in Bath where Jason Hewitt was due to hold a local launch for his second published novel, ‘Devastation Road’, which I review here.

I follow Jason on Twitter so had picked up on the fact that he has recently moved from London to Bath. What I had not been aware of was that he has a personal history with the city. Twelve years ago he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. In the audience were a number of other writers who have either taken this course or are currently attending. There were also published authors, family members and various friends there to support this very personable young man. It was one of the most open and friendly events I have been to. I enjoyed chatting to a variety of attendees both before and after the author’s talk.


Jason opened by explaining why he came to write this book. His first published work, ‘The Dynamite Room’, is also set during the Second World War and he wished to stick with the same period. The challenge was how to tell a story that had not been told many times before. As he was unfamiliar with events in mainland Europe around VE day he decided that others may also have this gap in knowledge. There was scope to inform readers as well as to entertain.

We were treated to three readings from the book. As always it was interesting to hear an author give voice to his characters. Jason is also an actor and was a delight to listen to. He appeared very relaxed in front of his captivated crowd.

The plot explores memory and the impact of its loss. Owen, the main character in the book, wakes in a field with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When he discovers that he is not in Hampshire, as he first believes, but rather in Czechoslovakia, he determines to make his way back home to England. Thus begins a road trip during which he joins the many hundreds of thousands of other displaced people caught in a war ravaged Europe at that time. His memory gradually returns, snapshots finding context and merging to provide some coherancy to his background.

Jason explained that he wished to evoke the numbness felt by many, particularly in Germany, as the war ended – the surreal atmosphere caused by the pause when survivors wondered what would happen next. The many prejudices did not just disappear. The celebratory atmosphere experienced in Britain was not enjoyed here.

Many people in Germany were just waking up to what had been happening so close to their homes. There was the practicality of how to deal with a vast number of stranded foreigners. There were ill and injured requiring treatment, including those liberated from the dreadful camps. There was the question, reminiscent of the refugee crisis today, of who should pay.


Jason concluded his talk by taking questions from the audience. I wondered if the unusually high quality of these was down to the fact that so many attendees were writers themselves.

He was asked about his research for the book. As a part of this, Jason made the same journey across Europe that his characters took. He aims for historical accuracy in his writing, only veering from fact when essential for the plot. Although entirely fictional, what happened to each character happened to someone for real. Place names have been changed but each location exists.


This fascinating discussion could have gone on much longer but time was called and I took my copy of the book to be signed. I was taken aback to discover as I left the shop that a couple of hours had passed. Time truly does fly when spent in such convivial company.

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Devastion Road is published by Scribner (Simon and Schuster UK) and is available to buy now.



Book Review: Devastation Road


Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt, is a harrowing yet sympathetically told story of one man’s experience of war and the terrible cost of such conflicts on all involved. It opens with the protagonist waking up in a field with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is injured but knows not how. The clothes he is wearing do not seem to fit and he carries no means of identification. As hazy memories of home life in Hampshire flit in and out of his aching head he stands up and starts to walk. He joins the tens of thousands of other displaced persons in a Europe torn apart.

The man remembers that he is called Owen, that he worked as an aircraft designer and has a brother named Max. He comes across the bloated bodies of the dead, ransacked homes, and then a teenage boy named Janek who offers him food. Janek is a Czech and they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. In amongst the muddle of thoughts and images that come and go, Owen decides he must travel to a place called Sagan, and it seems that Janek will help him to get there.

At Sagan they find a camp that triggers further memories, although it is all but deserted. Both Owen and Janek wish to find their brothers so they decide to head north and west. On the road they meet a girl carrying an infant she is trying to give away. Events unfold and she joins them. Irena speaks several languages so communication is easier, but she offers little about herself.

While travelling towards Leipzig the three learn that Hitler is dead and the war ended. They arrive at the city and view the destruction wrought to achieve this result. Owen wishes to return to England, but Janek and Irena demand that he help them. After all that they have been through his loyalties are torn.

Much has been written about the Second World War. This story keeps the conflict as a backdrop exploring the personal impact on just a few of the people whose lives have been irrevocably altered, who have lost everything they owned and become separated from those they love. In the destruction and confusion it is not always clear who has survived or where they might now be. By focusing on these three individuals amongst the flood of refugees pouring through a ravaged continent it becomes possible to empathise with the reactions to this vast, man made disaster, and to better understand why so many dreadful, smaller events took place.

There is no shirking from the individual barbarisms war can create. In places it is distressing to read but the author avoids judgement, offering up all nationalities as casualties. The anger and desperation of the survivors, the cruelties but also the kindnesses are well evoked. The writing is succinct yet conveys what Owen is suffering with sensitivity. Each of the trio is damaged by their experiences, and their actions, even when horrific, are presented with compassion. Given the refugee situation in Europe today it offers much to ponder.

I was deeply moved by this book yet it is not written to tug on the heart strings. The skill of the author in bringing to life a known history in such a personal way is to be lauded. We need stories like this to ensure that our capacity to empathise is not overloaded by the sheer number and scale of the disasters still happening around the world. The people suffering are individuals, just like us. If we would expect help in their situation, we should be offering it to them.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Scribner.