Setting her novel in 1939, in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, author Rebecca C. Pawel carefully recreates many of the elements which led to that civil war and which continued during the partisan turmoil after that. Sometimes described by Republicans as "a war between tyranny and democracy," and by Nationalists as "a war between Communists, anarchists, and `Red Hordes' against civilization," the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939) attracted extremists on both sides, and both sides committed atrocities against their fellow citizens. After the war, Gen. Francico Franco sets up the Guardia Civil, not the army, to police the cities.
The novel opens unobtrusively in Madrid with Maria Alejandra "Aleja" Palomino, age seven, hurrying home from school through her Republican neighborhood. She sees a guardia acting anxious, and soon afterward she hears shots. Hiding in terror, she later hears another guardia passing her hiding place, and when she eventually races for home, she discovers the first guardia lying dead. Terrified she drops one of her school notebooks. Since Aleja's Republican neighbors would not be likely to report a dead guardia immediately, her aunt, Tia Viviana, hurries out to retrieve the Aleja's missing book - paper is valuable and hard to get. She is caught picking it up, however, by two guardia, and when questioned, she denies any involvement, insisting she came only for a child's notebook. The guardia kill her anyway, thereby setting the scene for the action to follow.
Because the action, the motivations, and the shifting allegiances are complex here, the author wisely keeps her narrative style simple, moving the action along on the strength of her characters, who are memorable despite the fact that they are somewhat superficial. Sgt. Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon, a mid-level guardia, is widely honored by his fellow officers, but he often behaves in ways which will be repugnant to readers. The murdered guardia was his best friend, Francisco Lopez Perez, a man with whom he had lost touch during the war and whose body he had to identify on the street. He is determined to catch the murderer. The novel alternates between Tejada's point of view and that of Gonzalo Llorente, the lover of Viviana and brother of Carmen, the child Alexa's mother. Gonzalo, a Republican, was one of the few to have survived a series of Nationalist executions which killed most of his fellow soldiers, and he is bent on revenge, not only for the loss of Viviana but for those earlier killings, too.
Eventually, all the elements come together in a satisfying conclusion, though it is a different kind of satisfaction since one does not really relate to the main characters. A surprise twist provides a sense that not everyone may be as cruel at heart as it appears from the action, though this is also a way for the author to create some much-needed empathy in a book that is otherwise almost devoid of it. Realistic and filled with the kind of details that only someone who has studied all aspects of this war would know, the novel is both a good mystery and an especially readable depiction of an otherwise confusing time of history, a nonstop story in which no one is a real hero.