Rákossy by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland’s many historical novels cover a wide range of time periods and settings. So far I have only read two of them: City of God, a story of Rome and the Borgias, and Hammer for Princes, set in 12th century England in the period known as the Anarchy. My third Holland novel, Rákossy, takes place in Hungary during the Ottoman Wars of the 1520s. Not having read many books set in Hungary, I was looking forward to something different and to learning something new.

The title character is János Rákossy, a Magyar border lord trying to protect his lands from the threat of Turkish invasion. He is disappointed with the lack of help from the rest of Europe whom he feels are leaving Hungary to fend for itself and he knows he can’t rely on the support of his neighbouring barons either. All he can do is continue to negotiate treaties, train his knights, carry out raids, try to build alliances, and do whatever else is necessary to defend his castle and his people.

Rákossy is not the sort of man who is easy to like. He is ruthless, cold, cynical and violent towards both men and women. As another character says of him:

“The people in the village think that he sold his soul to the Devil for a charmed life and fortune in battle. The Turks, I’m told, believe so too. I think it’s possibly the only point of agreement between them.”

He does have some good qualities – he’s clever and shrewd and his courage is not in question – but he is certainly not someone I could consider to be a hero. This seems to be normal for a Cecelia Holland protagonist, though; I had similar feelings about Nicholas in City of God and Fulk in Hammer for Princes. She seems to excel at deliberately creating characters who are unappealing, morally ambiguous and whose motives are not always clear. But at least if her central characters are not very likeable, they are still interesting and complex.

Of the other characters in the novel, two stand out. One is Denis, Rákossy’s brother, a sensitive man who prefers books to warfare and doesn’t always approve of or agree with Rákossy’s actions. The other is Catharine de Buñez, believed to be an illegitimate daughter of the King of Aragon, who marries Rákossy early in the novel. As far as I can tell, most of the major characters in the book are fictional, although the story is based on fact, giving us an idea of the situation on the Hungary-Turkey border leading up to the Battle of Mohács in 1526. If you know what the outcome of that battle is going to be, it does affect how you might view Rákossy’s negotiations and military preparations throughout the novel, but either way you can admire what he is trying to do for his country.

I didn’t find this book particularly enjoyable, mainly because I thought it was very bleak and also because it didn’t seem to have any sort of plot beyond a string of raids and battles. It was one of Cecelia Holland’s earliest novels, though – published in 1967 – and based on the others I’ve read I think they do get better. I don’t think she’ll ever become a favourite author as her writing lacks the warmth and emotion I prefer, but I’m still looking forward to reading more of her books because her subjects and settings all sound so intriguing. I have a NetGalley copy of The Soul Thief, which is about to be reissued by Canelo, so I will be reading that one next.

11 thoughts on “Rákossy by Cecelia Holland

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    For a long time Cecelia Holland was one of my favourite authors, despite the bleakness and lack of emotion of her early novels – they felt real, and gritty. During the 70s, though, as her writing matured, they became more engaging and there are some that are absolutely brilliant. I would strongly recommend ‘Until the Sun Falls’ (probably her best book), about the Mongol invasions of Europe, ‘The Wonder of the World’ (about the Emperor Frederick II), ‘Great Maria’ (set in mediaeval times) and ‘The Sea Beggars’ (the Netherlands’ struggle to free themselves from Spain in the 16th century). I also enjoyed her books about California in the 19th century, ‘The Bear Flag’ and ‘Pacific Street’, because the lost cause of Californian independence is obviously a subject close to her heart. But I think she’s been too prolific to be fully invested in most of her characters and subjects, somehow, and it shows in her writing.

    • Helen says:

      The lack of emotion has been a problem for me with the three books I’ve read so far, but other than that I do like her writing. The books you’ve mentioned here all sound good. I will have to read The Soul Thief next as I have just received a copy for review, but after that I’ll definitely try to read Until the Sun Falls.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I am attracted by the time and the setting. But little plot except a string of raids and battles is discouraging. Pam’s list shows she sure covered a lot of history.

    • Pam Thomas says:

      She’s also covered ancient Egypt, the Vikings, Stonehenge, Byzantium, Attila the Hun, mediaeval Ireland, the crusades, even a sci-fi novel … you name it, she’s covered it. And I think that’s part of the problem with her books, that although her research is good, she never really achieves the depth I like, either in her settings or in her characters.

  3. Lark says:

    I’ve only read Holland’s book Jerusalem which I really enjoyed. But then I was going through a Crusades phase at the time and was reading any book I could find set in that time period. 🙂 Her book, Valley of the Kings, intrigues me now. If only my library had a copy.

    • Helen says:

      I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed Jersualem, Lark. I feel drawn to some of her other books more than that one, but I would like to read them all eventually.

  4. cirtnecce says:

    You know when you mentioned the time frame and setting of the book, I was like Oh! this I need to get! But as I read through the review, I was not sure if I will like it! I have never read Holland and maybe I should start with some other book!

    • Helen says:

      She has quite an unusual and distinctive writing style, I think, so you’ll either like her books or you won’t. I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one – it’s the weakest of the three I’ve read so far, in my opinion.

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