Day 147: Quo Vadis

Cover for Quo VadisI picked up Quo Vadis because I so much enjoyed Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Polish history trilogy, as you know if you read my review of With Fire and Sword. This novel is about a young Roman patrician, Vinicius, who falls in love with Ligia,  a Christian, in the time of Nero’s rule. Sienkiewicz did extensive research on the period to get the details right.

About half of the book is about Vinicius’s pursuit of Ligia, first through ruthless means, including kidnapping (presumably pagan patricians have no morals), and later through conversion to Christianity. I was frankly uninterested in either Vinicius or Ligia, who are cardboard characters, and I couldn’t care less about whether they got together.

The last half of the book is about the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians. It features the last days of St. Paul.  The pace picks up a little here, but overall the novel is marred by its focus on extolling Christianity. All of the Christians are noble, and most of the other characters are not. Sienkiewicz was a devout Catholic, as is obvious from a few scenes in all his books, and I can only think that the added emphasis on this aspect in this particular novel gets in the way of the book’s effectiveness, at least as viewed by a modern audience.

I know that Quo Vadis was extremely popular in its time (it was published in 1896) and contributed toward Sienkiewicz winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I also know that Sienkiewicz was capable of creating more interesting characters and writing more exciting scenes. Perhaps the times have just changed too much since this book was written for it to appeal to a wide audience now.

Day 51: With Fire and Sword

Cover for With Fire and SwordBest Book of Week 11!

Two years ago I read an exciting trilogy of Polish novels written in the 19th Century by Henryk Sienkiewicz, a Nobel prize winner for lifetime achievement in writing epic literature. The books were wildly popular for about 50 years, and Polish friends of mine tell me that they were their childhood reading. My review of the trilogy was published on Nancy Pearl’s blog (the librarian who has her own action figure), and I wrote to her awhile back asking if I could republish it here. She did not respond, so without further ado, I am going to write another review of the first book, With Fire and Sword. I will of course crib from my original review. The three books are stand-alone but with recurring characters, so you can read just one without missing important plot points.

It is 1647, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is having some trouble—there are rumblings of rebellion among the Cossacks, who are a major force in the Polish army. Yan Skshetuski is a young Polish officer in the hussars of the Ukrainian Prince Yeremi Vishnovyetski. Prince Yeremi sends him on a mission as an emissary to Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. Yan has just become engaged to the beautiful Helen, but duty calls, so he makes his way through down the river to where the Cossacks are gathering.

Yan has been sent too late, though, for the rebellion has already started when he arrives, and he is made a prisoner. He escapes with difficulty and makes his way through the war-torn landscape, all the time worrying about Helen.

The political situation in Poland is very unstable, so no one comes to Prince Yeremi’s aid as he is attacked by hoards of Cossacks from the southeast. Even though Helen has been kidnapped by the wild Cossack Bohun, Yan cannot take time to look for her because he is embroiled in another mission for the Prince. So, his friends, the fat buffoon Pan Zagloba, the lovelorn knight and master swordsman Michal Volodyovski, and the gentle Lithuanian giant Longinus Podbipyenta decide to help Yan by rescuing Helen themselves.

This novel is all adventure and romance, and it is truly exciting. Along the way, you learn something about 17th century Polish history.

If you are interested in reading the book, you may have  a hard time finding it (although I see it is available in a print-on-demand basis). It is also available in several translations, about which there is some debate. The original translation by Curtin is said to be truer to the book, but I took a look at it, and it is also fairly badly written. The translation that I read by Kuniczak takes some liberties with the structure of the novel, but is eminently readable, if you can find it. The cover picture at the beginning of the article is from the edition that I read.