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.

Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff is probably best known as a children’s author, but she also wrote several novels for adults and Blood and Sand, published in 1987, is one of them.

Blood and Sand is based on the true story of Thomas Keith, a Scottish soldier serving in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Taking part in the Alexandria expedition of 1807 – an operation designed to capture the city of Alexandria in Egypt – Thomas is taken prisoner by Ottoman forces at El Hamed. Most of his fellow captives are sent back to Cairo as prisoners of war, but the Ottoman general in command of El Hamed has other plans for Thomas, who is ‘an extremely personable young soldier who speaks French, knows how to bear pain like a gentleman, and is the best swordsman and shot in his regiment’. Sent to train in the desert with the Bedouin cavalry, Thomas gradually rises through the ranks to enter the service of Tussun Bey, the Viceroy of Egypt’s youngest son, and to become Governor of Medina.

You may be wondering how it was possible for a Christian to reach such heights within the Ottoman Empire, so I should explain that Thomas makes the decision to convert to Islam. He does this partly because he is advised that it is the only way to progress in his military career but also because during his time as a prisoner he reads about and studies the Islamic religion and decides that conversion is something he feels comfortable with. However, it seemed to me that he made this choice a bit too easily and quickly; I would have found it more convincing if he had struggled with it more and if he had thought more often of the life he had left behind in Edinburgh and to which he would now never be able to return.

As far as I can tell – I had never heard of Thomas Keith until reading this book – most of the characters in the novel really did exist and most of the events described really did happen. This certainly seems to be true of the battles and military campaigns, but also two of the novel’s most exciting and memorable scenes: a dramatic duel and a desperate battle for survival on a dark turnpike stair. Of course, it’s Sutcliff’s skill as a writer which brings these scenes to life and fills them with suspense and tension, but it sounds as though the real Thomas Keith must have had a fascinating career and some hair-raising adventures. It’s surprising that he has not been a more popular subject for historical fiction.

In her author’s note Sutcliff says that the only area where she relies completely on her imagination is with the romance she creates for Thomas. This possibly explains why our hero’s love interest doesn’t appear until halfway through the book and only plays a relatively small role in the story. A much more interesting and moving relationship is the one between Thomas and Tussun, the Viceroy’s son – a relationship which develops over the years as Tussun grows from an impulsive, hot-headed teenager into a mature, well-respected leader and although it stops short of actual romantic love, is deeper than a normal friendship.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel very much, but later in the book Thomas and Tussun become embroiled in fighting against the Wahabis of Arabia and the heavy focus on military action was much less interesting to me than the more human story I had been finding so engrossing. That’s just my personal taste, though, and the battle scenes will probably appeal to other readers more than they did to me. I didn’t love this book quite as much as I’d thought I was going to at first, then, but I will certainly be reading more by Rosemary Sutcliff, having enjoyed both this one and The Rider of the White Horse.