One night in the Russian imperial province of Courland, an eleven-year-old boy more than a little drunk on his parents’ champagne slips away from his aristocratic manor and heads for the village that houses his family’s Latvian farmhands. It is Christmas 1905, two months after Emperor Nicholas II of Russia’s October Manifesto has turned his autocracy into the semblance of a constitutional monarchy, and the subject peoples of his empire are restive. In Courland, a province governed by Baltic barons who descend from the thirteenth-century chivalric orders of the Teutonic and Livonian Knights, that hope for change centers on the populace’s desire for independence from its German overlords—even more than from the Russian Empire itself.
Thus begins the story of Wiktor Rooks, a Baltic German boy who soon sees his family’s estate burned, its ancestral property lost, and his own future compromised. Wiktor yearns for the academic life, but family tradition requires him, as a second son, to become a soldier. He joins the Russian imperial army, which assigns him to spy on a unit full of Latvian soldiers fighting to rid themselves of men like him. Slowly he wins their trust, and the friendships he forms there—and the wartime atrocities he witnesses—send him into the ranks of the Latvian Red Riflemen. By 1918, he is guarding the new Soviet government.
When Latvia achieves its independence in 1921, Wiktor’s fortunes change again, and he returns to the land of his birth. There he strives, once and for all, to overcome his past as the second son of a Baltic baron. But soon the forces of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are massing, and tiny Latvia stands smack in their way.