From the Publisher
An August 2006 BookSense Pick:
"An enticing blend of history and fiction set in 19th-century Poland, with characters you come to care about as you share their joys and disappointments. James Conroyd Martin will please readers who might not usually consider historical fiction." --Nicola Rooney, Nicola's Books, Ann Arbor, MI, for BookSense, a network of 1200 independent booksellers
"Entertaining…fans of historical romance will find much to enjoy in this sprawling epic." -Publishers Weekly
"Compelling...a moving and fascinating winner." --Polish American Journal
"Polish history fans will be riveted." --Kirkus Reviews
"Readers will revel in this engrossing tale of courage, family loyalty, and the Polish nation." --Historical Novels Review
"If you love reading, Poland, history, historical fiction...you will love this book!" --Polish Culture Newsletter
"With Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-fated campaign to conquer Russia as a backdrop, Against a Crimson Sky manages to turn the wily emperor's exploitation of Polish patriotism into a classic read that lovers of Push Not the River will devour. James Conroyd Martin brings back the characters that made his first novel so compelling, deftly weaving their daily lives into the panorama of war and turmoil that consumed Poland in the early nineteenth century. He portrays a world of hardship and heart in marvelously rendered 'little pieces of happiness stolen from a tapestry of turmoil, war, and separation.'" --Leonard Kniffel, Editor-in-chief of American Libraries and author of A Polish Son in the Motherland: An American's Journey Home
"I was both enthralled and educated by this story of a changing family in a changing Poland. You don't have to have read Push Not the River to get the most from this sequel, but after finishing Against a Crimson Sky you'll want to--just as you'll be rooting for another book from James Conroyd Martin." --Suzanne Strempek Shea, author of Around Again
Martin (Push Not the River) continues his fictionalized account of the life of Polish countess Anna Maria Berezowska in this entertaining sequel that follows Anna through the chaotic years of the Napoleonic wars. These are trying times for her beloved Poland ("Europe's plaything"), but Anna finds happiness in her marriage to the handsome Count Jan Stelnicki and in her three children. But because the book takes place in early 19th-century Poland, tragedy continues to dog her (in the earlier novel, she was raped and forced into a loveless marriage), including the death of a son during Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign. Because of their prominence, the Stelnickis have a front-row seat to history: while her husband and sons fight for Poland's independence, Anna is part of the Warsaw social scene that wines and dines Napoleon after he liberates Poland from Russian rule. Martin provides a panoramic view of Europe during a time of enormous change and in all its sanguinary excesses. His characters could benefit from more depth and his narrative drama from more realism, but fans of historical romance will find much to enjoy in this sprawling epic. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Martin takes up the story of Jan Stelnicki, Anna Maria Berekowska, and Anna's cousin, Zofia, immediately after the close of Push Not the River (2003). Miraculously, the trio survive Russia's 1794 conquest of Poland and make their way to Anna's family estate, where Anna marries Jan. When Napoleon's ambitions set him against Poland's enemies, many in the Polish military, including Jan and his best friend, Pawel, join the emperor's ranks. By the time of the winter retreat from Moscow in 1812, Anna and Jan's sons are among the troops enduring hardships and death. Accounts of battles and campaigns fill many pages, and subplots abound, including activities of the Masonic Brotherhood, the relationship between Anna and Zofia's daughters, and machinations of a corrupt local official. But swirling activity on battlefields and in ballrooms can't substitute for character development. The book might hold some appeal for devotees of Polish political history or fans of Push Not the River. It is unlikely, however, to attract readers to that novel or possible sequels.-Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Four Polish aristocrats negotiate the upheavals of the Napoleonic era. Martin's second takes up where his first, Push Not the River (2003)-based on the actual diaries of Countess Anna Berezowska-leaves off. Anna's scheming cousin, Countess Zofia, has saved her life during flight across a bridge from a Warsaw suburb sacked by the Russians. Rescued from drowning by a handsome peasant and nursed back to health, Zofia returns to Warsaw, pregnant, to take up residence in her suitor Count Pawel's townhouse. Meanwhile, Anna (elevated to Princess by King Stanislaw) has fled to her country estate, Topolostan. She marries true love Jan, who attempts to love her son Jan Michal, product of a rape. Anna gives Jan a son, Tadeusz. Poland has been partitioned among Austria, Prussia and Russia, and King Stanislaw, one of Zofia's former conquests, is exiled. Zofia, now the mother of Izabel, puts off Pawel's frequent marriage proposals, hoping to marry into the highest strata of the upper crust. Friendship with Charlotte, an ex-patriot French princess, nets Zofia entree to all the best parties. Pawel is embroiled in a Masonic plot to groom Tadeusz to be the next Polish king, a plan threatened by a Prussian spy who also has designs on Anna's estate and person. Jan and Pawel join Napoleon's Polish allied forces, who hope to be rewarded with Polish independence. In Jan's absence, Anna gives birth to his daughter, Basia. Napoleon falls into and too quickly out of Zofia's clutches. With the men perennially at war and her sons in military school, Anna joins Zofia in Warsaw to raise their daughters. Years pass and Napoleon launches his ill-conceived 1812 assault on Moscow. Jan Michal and Tadeusz are soldiers andAnna tends casualties in Warsaw. Poland becomes a Russian Duchy. By the end, Napoleon is on Elba, Anna's family has survived devastating loss and war wounds and Zofia, whose irrepressible bravado steals the show, gets her just deserts. Polish history buffs will be riveted, general readers less so.
Read an Excerpt
Whom the Gods love die young.
2 November All Souls' Day
Swollen with recent rains, the river heaved and churned, flowing rapidly away from Warsaw, its burden of bodies propelled carelessly along, like so much flotsam.
A partially clad woman clung to something as the current took her. A log? A piece of planking from the broken bridge? Delirious from the fall, she was certain she was dying--or had died. Her faith--or the hazy filaments of a childhood belief that she conjured now--suggested she might expect to ascend into heaven as if on wings. Or plummet to a hell she had thought little about.
But she was being carried in an undulating line--like a weightless twig--through the drumming rush of water. The sparkling interplay of the afternoon sunshine on the water was deceiving, for the river was brutally cold.
The woman's mind inexplicably fastened on to the mythical river that was thought to usher one to the Greek underworld. Her cousin had told her about it--the river Acheron, was it? She dared not open her eyes.
What was she to expect in the underworld? There would be the fee for the ferry boat operator. Did she have any coins? She thought not, and without a coin he would not bring her across. Everyone knew that. Might she use her charms on him? Were charms of her kind taken as legal tender in the underworld? She had her doubts.
Her heart felt the icy fingers of the river upon it. How was she to account for her life? The things she had done?
The numbing water seemed to run faster now--like her fear--rushing her to her fate.
The ancient Poles had believed that those who died by drowning were doomed to become water spirits, forever residing in the waters where they had met death. She imagined Marzanna, Goddess Death, waiting for her at the river's end, dressed in white and carrying her scythe.
The woman pushed the Polish deity from her mind. At the age of twenty, she had run out of time. So? What of it? She had often proclaimed that the years of her youth were ducats to be spent. Wishing she had lived a better life was useless. Just as well, she thought--she had never been one for apologies. Or regrets.
She was cold, cold to the bone. She took in a mouthful of water and coughed. Despite the urge, she knew not to move a hand to her face. To do so would cause her to lose her grip, and the river would draw her to its bottom. Her arms and hands were frozen in position, locked on to the object they were holding . . . holding.
And if God was the Christian God of her parents' beliefs, she wondered, would he forgive her?
With the numbing cold, she felt darkness descending--and the angry resignation that death was imminent. It was as certain as the fall of night's curtain. . . . Dog's blood! How had she come to such an ignominious end?
The villagers who had hurried down to the river's edge stared in horror at the cargo the River Vistula was carrying past them. Those transfixed with wide eyes were mostly women, their men having gone off to fight with Kosciuszko against the invading forces. An old man gawked much like the others--in silence--as the flotilla of human bodies moved steadily along. Sometimes a corpse became enmeshed in the weeds and foliage at the bank of the river, but the force of other bodies following a similar fateful journey goaded it once again on its way--or the water's strong current drew it down toward the murky bottom.
In disbelief, the old man turned toward Warsaw; the city was a great distance away, twenty miles upriver, but he could see an eerie, orange glow and above that, thick black smoke rising high into the air. Had the capital fallen to the Russians? God help us all, he prayed. Then aloud: "God and the Black Madonna!"
The man's grandson had braved the sight, going close to the shore.
The old man called him back. This was no sight for a sixteen-year-old, even one already wounded in the patriots' cause. The boy seemed not to hear.
"Jerzy, come back!" he called again.
His grandson turned, a queer look on his face, and waved him forward.
Without questioning, the old man obeyed.
When he came to the shore, his eyes widened at the sight that held Jerzy spellbound. A raven-haired woman clung to what looked like planking that had become caught in the thick reeds and tubers at the river's side. Her skirt was red as blood, and she was naked above the waist. She was both young and beautiful, . . . Something about her told him she must certainly be noble.
The old man saw now what Jerzy had seen. Little bubbles at her mouth. Damn!
The woman was gasping for breath. She was alive!
The peasant understood what his grandson meant to do and moved closer to assist.
Jerzy immediately stepped into the water, reaching for the woman with one arm while the other linked him to his grandfather and to the river's bank.
Jerzy tugged at one of the woman's arms, trying to force her to let go of what had held her afloat. Her skin was nearly blue. "Let go! Let go!" he cried.
She remained insensible to his directions. The mouth seemed to twist and tighten. Her clawlike hands held fast.
The current spun her body now, pulling her, whipping her legs and lower body out toward the river's middle, as if the river had mighty hands that would not allow her to be rescued.
Jerzy held on, persisting in loosening her grip, pulling back one finger, then another. At last her hand came free and came to clasp his as he pulled her to him. Her other hand willingly released that which had held her afloat the long distance from Warsaw, and as the old man aided his grandson in pulling the woman to safety, he saw that she had set free the red uniformed body of a Russian soldier, its mustachioed face blue and bloated beneath the waters.