Tomaszek (Dance the Golden Calf, 2016, etc.) offers a sweeping novel of historical military fiction set in 17th-century Poland.
Young Boles?aw Radok, known to most as “Bolek,” lives in the southern part of the country on his family’s farm. Although the land around him is one of beautiful mountains and lakes, it’s also full of danger. It’s the late 1600s, during the reign of King Jan III Sobieski, and threats of Ottoman invasion and harassment from bandits are very real. Bolek hopes to one day wield a curved sword, known as a szabla, and spill the blood of enemies with tremendous strikes. All his dreams seem lost, however, when his family farm is attacked by brigands. When help arrives in the form of four knights, Bolek’s life is forever changed. They’re part of a cavalry group known as the pancerni and annihilating aggressors is no more difficult to them than drinking vodka. Led by the religious yet deadly Priest, the men eventually agree to take Bolek under their wing. Should he survive his training, he will be a great hero like them—but doing so will be no easy task. Tomaszek makes Bolek’s journey an epic one, full of high-minded sentiments (“Each man is from God’s image, has dignity and, therefore, must be protected by a virtuous constitution,” says one of the pancerni) and discussions about honor (“All can be taken from you, save honor,” Bolek’s grandfather informs him). Action scenes are always around the corner, with plenty of flying arrows and galloping horses to carry the adventure along. A few coincidences drain some of the excitement, as does the fantastical nature of the ending, and some characters are so unrealistic that they seem almost otherworldly; Priest, for instance, is a defrocked clergyman who’s not only well versed in Latin, politics, warfare, horsemanship, and Catholicism, but he also reads Shakespeare before a battle. Nevertheless, the story travels well from farm to countryside to the famous Battle of Vienna in 1683—a conflict whose depiction shows deserved reverence for the bravery of King Sobieski and his men.
A grand, if sometimes grandiose, portrayal of a szabla-wielding hero.