This extremely wintry and hard-hitting adventure story is set in provincial Russia. Most of the action takes place at the end of the Great War and in a large snow-covered country house near Smolensk. The Tsar has abdicated and the ‘fabulous beast’ of Imperial Russia is ‘swaying’.
The narrator is a big, bold, half-likeable man called Charlie Doig, who has a Russian mother and ‘proper Russian balls that swing like the planets’. Now in his late twenties, he has already had a wild life. The sudden death of his Scottish father from the plague has inspired him to avenge himself on the Xenopsylla cheops flea responsible and driven him out on the road as a naturalist.