In 1930s London at the Caledonian Club, Sidney Chambers meets Amanda Kendall. Their fledgling friendship is tested when Sidney, Amanda's brother Robert, and their best friend, actor Freddie Hawthorne, are sent off to war. Sidney never imagined becoming a soldier in a landscape where death is a part of life and where "making do" is a daily chore. Runcie carefully builds war's theatre, from the German shelling to the tracer fire as Sidney and Michael's battalion moves towards Monastery Hill and they secure their position watching sniper fire.
Robert makes jokes about the best way to die, grimly foreshadowing his own demise. Sidney cannot imagine the horror that Amanda and her parents must feel; "[t]o survive, with Robert dead, is abhorrent, even obscene." From the agonies of war to a time of peace, Sidney is a modern-day hero, plagued by survivor's guilt, haunted by war's gunshots, confusion, sounds and bodies. Reverend Nev attempts to talk to Sidney about patience and the sense that he must accept suffering.
Buoyed by Reverend Nev's sense of purpose, Sidney hears testimonies but is "daunted by the fierceness of the feeling and the passionate desire to own the future." He knows the process to become a priest will take far longer than anyone has anticipated. "Start with silence... The desire to pray is, in itself, already a form of prayer."
Runcie's secondary characters are beautifully conveyed. Freddie, attracted to men, is always unlucky in love (shades of Leonard in the later books). Eager Amanda is old enough to be the same age as the widows of Sidney's friends killed in Italy. Lady Kendall aches for Sidney to tell her about her son's last moments. Sidney's own father and mother always soothe and love him. Preoccupied by the past, his journey is to consider his future in a world where peace seems so much harder than war.
The path to becoming the vicar of Grantchester is gradual, buoyed by Sidney's spiritual awakening amid memories of bodies in the mud and the charred landscape, where the cries of the wounded and the dead remain unburied. Seconded to the Holy Trinity Church at Coventry as part of its pastoral ministry, Sidney struggles to become accustomed to the rhythm of his daily tasks in this kind and more gentle kind of life. He's a long way from the Cambridge feasts and philosophical speculation, the glamour of London theatre and the front line of war. Is Sidney ready to be vicar? He hasn't even been a curate for long.
Runcie traces Sidney's journey to understand "God's love," the power of triumph over death, and how a selfless, graceful love can come "from outside ourselves." Sidney's fledgling relationship with Amanda becomes complicated when she begs him not to abandon himself entirely to God. Riddled with forbidden love and church teachings as well war's regrets, readers who know the series will celebrate in the introduction of a certain cranky landlady and a stern but lovable police detective who will come to play an important part in Sidney's life.
Runcie's prequel resembles a genre painting, cleverly balancing Sidney's emotional point of view against his personal history. Charming, handsome and likeable, Sidney is destined to become the curative, soothing balm the quaint village of Grantchester will come to treasure.