The novel, which takes place in central Europe in the 20th century, examines a vast array of characters, ranging from generals to martyrs, officers to poets, traitors to artists and musicians. It deals with the moral decisions made by people in the most testing of times and offers a perspective on human actions during wartime. Vollmann makes use of many historical figures as characters including composer Dmitri Shostakovich, artist Käthe Kollwitz, film director Roman Karmen, poet Anna Akhmatova, SS officer Kurt Gerstein, as well as German general Friedrich Paulus and Soviet general Andrey Vlasov.
The Times Literary Supplement wrote that Vollmann "has turned to the historical novel and made it his own, fashioning a work which is cinematic in scope, epic in ambition and continuously engaging, shows that he is one of the most important and fascinating writers of our time."
The New York Times Book Review described it at his "most welcoming work, possibly his best book… part novel and part stories, virtuoso historical remembrance and focused study of violence."