Sometimes people email to tell me about the books they’ve been reading recently. It’s always great fun for me to get one of these emails, both because it’s intrinsically interesting to hear about what others are reading but also because I somehow inevitably add the books to my ever-growing “to be read” list.
Here’s a recent email from Kay Robart, who describes herself as “a technical writer who reads constantly and hosts two book clubs. I especially love good historical novels and mysteries.”
Guest Post by Kay Robart
My latest discovery is not a new book, but a trio of old ones, the trilogy written by Henryk Sienkiewicz about the history of Poland, which won him the Nobel Prize. The books are purely adventure/romance stories of the late 1800s, but historically accurate and extremely well written. Even though they are mostly about war (and I was the girl who skipped all the war in War and Peace), they are really exciting and about a period and place that most of us Americans don’t know much about.
The first book, With Fire and Sword, is about the Cossack rebellion of 1648, which ultimately resulted in the Ukraine splitting off from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yan Skshetuski is a young Polish officer in the hussars of the Ukrainian Prince Yeremi Vishnovyetski. Just after Yan becomes engaged to the lovely Helen, Prince Yeremi sends him off as an emissary to Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. But Yan is sent too late. When he arrives at this destination, the rebellion has already started.
Yan escapes with difficulty from the Cossacks and makes his way through the war-torn landscape, all the time worrying about Helen. But his duty is to his Prince, who because of the political landscape ends up fighting the Cossack invasion with very little help from the other Polish or Lithuanian nobles. Helen has been kidnapped by the wild Cossack Bohun, who also wants her for his wife, but Yan cannot take time to look for her. He must leave on another mission for Prince Yeremi. In the meantime, his friends, Pan Zagloba, the fat buffoon; Michal Volodyovski, the small, continually lovelorn knight and master swordsman; and Longinus Podbipyenta, the gentle Lithuanian giant, try to help Yan by rescuing Helen.
The second book, The Deluge, is about the 1655 Swedish invasion of the Commonwealth. The Cossack rebellion is still going strong and the Russians are invading from the East, so many of the Polish nobles simply hand the government over to the Swedish King, and the Polish king must flee the country. Andrei Kmita is a Lithuanian knight who has been living a wild life, rioting around the country and fighting off the Russians with a band of hooligans who do not treat their own countrymen any better than the Russians. But then he meets his fiancée, Olenka, an upright girl who lets him know he needs to mend his ways. Prince Radzivill offers him the opportunity to redeem himself, he thinks, and help save the country. But the Radzivills are misleading him. They have other things in mind than their country’s welfare, and it is awhile before Kmita figures this out. In the meantime, the Radzivills have taken Olenka hostage. How can Kmita redeem his name, try to mend his errors, fight for his country, and win back Olenka? His redemption starts with the defense of a famous monastery from the Swedish army. In the meantime, he keeps running into Yan Skshetuski, Pan Zagloba, and Michal Volodyovski, who are fighting the Swedes under a Lithuanian general. They don’t know whether he is a hero or a scoundrel, but they end up fighting beside him.
I haven’t started the third book yet, Fire in the Steppe, about another invasion by the Ottoman Empire, featuring the small knight Michal Volodyovski, but I can hardly wait to begin. The books are hefty reads (book 1—1035 pages; book 2—two volumes of about 1700 pages; book 3—500 or 600 pages), but they are worth every minute of your time. There are two major translations and some controversy about which is best. I read the one from 1991 by Kuniczak, which is very well written but much longer than the original translation by Curtin.