The alternate universe centers around the relationship between three characters (later, four) who are enmeshed in a sinister intrigue... The title is Hungarian for Doubting Castle, by the way, and refers to the main setting, that fortress/outpost community that gradually turns to more and more of a point of no return...
Viscountess Clarissa von Liebenstein and Freiherr Rainer von Waldheim, both only children and betrothed since childhood since the late Freiherr von Waldheim saved the Count von Liebenstein's life on the battlefiend in exchange for his own, reunite after a decade separated (since he was taken to Vienna for officer's education and she stayed at home in the provinces) at a society ball, now a marriageable maiden and a dashing lieutenant, both of them blond and fair-skinned. However, things clearly take a turn for the more exciting when Rainer's tall, dark, and brooding commanding officer, Colonel Karl Harschanji, né Harsányi Károly, takes Clarissa out to dance and --in the shocking first scene-- unties her corset on the ballroom balcony when she falls unconscious. The reserved raven-haired officer soon discovers in the girl he saves the first Austrian society lady who sees who he is instead of what he is, as the trio and some friends in white uniforms head for the distant fortress of Kétkedésvár, their assignment.
As Clarissa discovers for whom her feelings are awakening, Rainer expresses her wish to be happy, and a shotgun wedding is even celebrated in a village church en route (complete with white lies that the heiress married her intended beloved). Károly is, in the meantime, increasingly vulnerable; forced to serve the empire that left him a homeless orphan (when a childless high-ranking Austrian officer adopted the estate-born boy whose mum was shot right before his eyes) by wearing its uniform and finally finding love in the form of one of its socialites. A frequent victim of ugrophobia who ironically wears the Habsburg uniform, he initially speaks German with a Magyar accent, then he drops the act and speaks Hungarian when his sanity completely slips. (Kétkedésvár is a bilingual project, in which at least both languages and some French are spoken).
Then there's István, the discarded right-hand man who wants to get rid of both Rainer and Clarissa and keep Károly all to himself but also finish with the colonel who (ironically) saved his life during the revolution... and Ilona, the tomboyish orphan daughter of the regiment who serves as the dark-haired foil to the Habsburg blonde. Ilona falls for Rainer, giving us a love square of dark boy*blonde girl and blond boy*dark girl that is completely predictable, even more after the handkerchief trick... the idea of rolling Emilia, Bianca, and Roderigo into one character plus the twist reveal that her mum was a French noblewoman as revealed from the locket she had worn all along;
The story has pretty flashbacks of for instance Rainer's and Károly's discrimination and friendlessness as cadets at the Theresian military academy (the former due to social awkwardness, the latter due to ethnic identity), two backstories one decade apart that mirror one another pretty closely. Or the Count's unfortunate riding accident and ensuing coma, (that leads to him being wheelchair-bound due to spinal injury later on) while his wife and only daughter wake constantly and concernedly by his side.
But it's the very starting point with toddler lordling Károly getting orphaned and seeing his estate claimed by whitecoats, whose commanding officer mentions a childless wife and is stirred by the adorable dark-featured little boy's expression of shock. Maids, mum, nanny dying left and right and Károly standing there frozen as the enemy splutters tapestry walls and marble floors with the blood of loved ones... then the commanding officer suddenly addressing Karcsi in German and the ensuing headshake, in spite of the CO's friendliness. The latter switches to Hungarian and Karcsi replies in wonder with an AWWWW. Violence, the language barrier, an orphan adopted by the enemy leader who ordered the death of his loving mother. Then a montage of Karcsi vs. Peers at military school, all the other cadets shunning Karcsi as he goes through adolescence, followed by the Gott erhalte at the graduation, with all cadets-turned-lieutenants in their late teens --then age cut to another graduation set to Gott erhalte, with Rainer in Karcsi's place and 20/30-sth Károly, now a colonel and commandant of Kétkedésvár, among the commanding officers overseeing the new batch of freshly-baked lieutenants. The male blond corner of our love square now hears Clarissa's voice in his mind's ears: "I look forwards to seeing your face again." Followed by his own whisper "So do I."
There are lots of heartwarming moments until the Othello intrigue process kicks in and all the backstory is more or less set in stone. From that moment it's a thriller about slipping sanity and a romantic love-square drama, as the threat of a war on Prussia looms from outside but not even the walls of a star fortress are safe enough for our leading cast.
István's motivation? Right, he's a gay yandere who hateloves his CO whom he belittles for being a traitor to the Magyar cause AND idealizes for all of that coolness and the fact that he's made it this far. A yandere who suddenly realizes his kismesis has found himself a female love interest and a kindred spirit in a freshly-baked lieutenant for an aide-de-camp.
The ending? Right, it felt especially exciting, with Rainer and Ilona now the commandant and commandant's wife, watching István's execution by firing squad, and the dying traitor cursing both the new commandant and the Habsburg empire. Then there's this really heartwarming moment of Ilona kissing Rainer farewell before the war on Prussia calls him... he dies on the war front, his chest riddled, surely shot through the heart and having punctured both lungs... Ilona returns to Austria to give the whole story to the young Austrians' parents, while she is with Rainer's children... it ends with her having twins, a blond and a dark one, of unknown gender. All that set to a rending, heartwarming rendition of the opening theme.
Kétkedésvár is firmly steeped in nineteenth-century fictional traditions as well as Othello; first we find an idealized Arcadian hinterland (the von Liebenstein and von Waldheim shires, Károly's native estate) in stark contrast to decadent high society in the capital. A trope which was already as old as time, but that endured and even thrived with the Victorian shift to bourgeois ruling classes and industralism.
We find anti-war/pacifist statements and wartime orphans given as exhibit A of the consequences of armed conflict. However, unlike innocent Victorian waifs, those in this case have suffered serious trauma, deconstructing the trope.
We find the waif, speaking of orphans, who turns out to have been a noble child born in exile and raised by commoners, a trope as old as time but re-popularized by Dickens among other feuilleton authors.
We find a young heroine torn between her heart and her head, between her childhood friend and the tall, dark stranger; and her choice shaping the whole plotline of the novel and the character arcs of all three.
We find the fatal first glass that sets the ball rolling in temperance narratives, when a promising young man, being thirsty with exertion, is tempted by elusive so-called friends into tasting an intoxicating drink that fills him with elation and has him ask for more. The warmth and the elation once he has downed the above-mentioned strong drink are highlighted, and then, once the ball has been set rolling, the narrative chronicles his downfall and redemption.
We find the looming threat of war, returning to war, and the departure for the frontline looming like storm clouds in the horizon. Furthermore find the idealistic young officer lying upon the battlefield with a bullet through the heart.
Intrigue looms large within the walls of Kétkedésvár and leading characters are poisoned, drugged, their perceptions of reality warped, in one way or another. No matter if the cause is pálinka or paranoia, the ensuing loss of identity remains the same. Self-confidence and identity issues are put to the test. At the heart of the story is the problem of free will being a two-edged weapon.
"Steep on the right the path ascends,
wide on the left the path descends..."
...and everyone is free to choose whither they will go, in spite of the constraints placed by the establishment. Yet the left-hand path is the more enticing one. The glory of Kétkedésvár lies in acknowledging the fact that anyone can waver and that there cannot be a good story without the initial descent or downfall; as demonstrated when realizing that "Untergang/untergehen" in German and "leszállni" in Hungarian serve as arc words, as a lexical leitmotif. Like the path to the left, a lot of other things are mentioned to descend: whether a high officer's glory and self-confidence, a drink of liquor down a lieutenant's throat, the evening twilight with its encroaching darkness, or the sun and the moon behind the horizon. Everyone in the leading cast within the walls is affected by despair; even --in the climax the surgeon who tries to dissuade Ilona from giving blood to a hypovolemic, comatose Rainer on what appears to be a combination of healthcare and jingoist issues. Her reply to the explanation that Magyar blood will kill the dying young Austrian? "Who dares wins!", she says, stripping her sleeves. And her defense of self-confidence (contrasted with Clarissa's simultaneous bedtime wavering) culminates with the placement of the IV, one of the needles of its extremes plunged into Rainer's left arm and the other into Ilona's right. A spoonful of cordial poured through parted lips every now and then, and the transfusion winds up being unexpectedly successful; her blood having become her lover's and coursed into his heart. Furthermore, the cordial (to quench a greater thirst than the one it all began with!) and the near-death have awakened Rainer's hazy, suppressed memories of the fateful evening when the brawl took place, thus tying up the loose ends even more. In that case, we may say that the love square with two parallel couples is carried on further with (at least pre-epilogue): dark boy*blonde girl, both deceased; and blond boy*dark girl, both alive. Károly kills Clarissa while Ilona saves Rainer's life. This parallel is definitely the jewel in the crown of the plot, showing that human passion is capable of both the greatest acts of cruelty and those of kindness.