I’m happy to report that I have finished reading With Fire and Sword by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, and ultimately it was a good read. If you missed them, you can read both my first impressions as well as more insights I shared last time. This very long story is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, let’s be clear. Why, you may ask?
With Fire and Sword accurately depicts how the battles depicted in the book are fought. Sienkiewicz does not shy from vivid details of the horrors of war and the gore and violence that accompany hand-to-hand combat. I can’t tell if this is a cautionary tale about those horrors, or an honorific to the men who fought for what they believed in versus those who only fought to gain or hold onto power. One parallel I kept seeing is the disregard for human life during these battles and those in Ukraine today. It also should be noted that much of the fighting in this story takes place in Ukraine in the 1600s. I found myself wondering at the similarity in both the logic and the nerve the soldiers in the tale demonstrated which seems to reflect today’s events. Another example of how although times and technologies may change, humanity really doesn’t all that much?
Another aspect of this story I found intriguing is the sense of an extended quest narrative woven throughout the battles and bloodshed. Two of them, actually. The first more gruesome one is the vow one noble makes to sever three heads in one blow to honor his ancestors. The second one is the pursuit of a singularly beautiful princess who is ultimately moved hither and yon much like a pawn in a chess match. Throughout the story, several different men secrete her away or chase after her, longing to marry her. Her beauty strikes men dumb until they adjust to being in her presence. But she only has eyes for one noble, despite being kidnapped and hidden from him.
Sienkiewicz knew he was writing a bloody account of warfare so he included some comic relief in the person of one of the nobles. Zagloba exaggerates his deeds, trash talks those around him including his friends, and speaks his mind even at the most inappropriate moments (according to his friends and fellow soldiers). He’s opinionated about everything but most especially food and mead. But he does provide a chuckle here and there to offset the cruelty and mayhem.
I’ll say it again: this is a very long story! I appreciate the research and the time it took the author to put onto paper the life of the soldiers and nobles during this awful time in history. He’s done a good job of describing the setting so I could picture (most of the time) the battle scene or the conversation or whatever with ease. He delves into the heart of the characters to bring forth their deepest fears and desires for me to witness.
I’m glad I read it but at the same time I don’t think the vivid awful imagery will leave me alone for quite some time. This is not my typical historical novel that I enjoy reading due to the focus on the battles and bloodshed. But it also provides a look at the life of the soldiers during the war, which is what I care about more than the strategies and officers and such. “Seeing” how they lived during the war is interesting, in other words.
I’m going to take a couple weeks away from this Historical Fiction Around the World series to do some research for the next novel I want to write. Look for the next installment in the new year.
Until then, happy reading! Happy holidays!
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