Against a Crimson Skyby James Conroyd Martin
The year is 1794, and the beautiful and resilient Countess Anna Maria Berezowska has narrowly escaped death amidst the chaos caused by the violent
A magnificent epic, AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY is an unforgettable tale of love, valor, and the enduring strength of the human spirit, set against the backdrop of war-torn Poland at the cusp of the nineteenth century.
The year is 1794, and the beautiful and resilient Countess Anna Maria Berezowska has narrowly escaped death amidst the chaos caused by the violent dissolution of Poland. Anna is soon reunited with her longtime love, Lord Jan Stelnicki, and the two lovers marry even as their beloved country is ripped apart. As the couple struggles to raise a family in the face of an uncertain future, Anna's capricious cousin Zofia returns with a surprise of her own. Although Zofia's past schemes still resonate, Anna's doubts turn to fear as Jan's patriotism draws him to the battlefield.
Offering new hope for a conquered Poland, Napoléon Bonaparte arrives in all of his pomp and glory. With the aid of new Polish legions~Anna's friends and family among them~Napoléon battles his way across Europe an effort that culminates in the march into Moscow and the subsequent doomed winter retreat.
Against this backdrop, Anna and Jan valiantly fight to hold on to a tenuous happiness, their country, and their very lives.
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
Read an Excerpt
Against a Crimson SkyA Novel
By Martin, James Conroyd
Thomas Dunne BooksCopyright © 2006 Martin, James Conroyd
All right reserved.
Whom the Gods love
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 theGreek 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 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.
Excerpted from Against a Crimson Sky by Martin, James Conroyd Copyright © 2006 by Martin, James Conroyd. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Conroyd Martin is a longtime teacher of English and Creative Writing whose acclaimed first novel, Push Not the River, was based on the diary of Anna Maria BerezowskaBerezowski, a Polish countess. Against a Crimson Sky allows for Martin to freely imagine how life may have continued to unfold for Anna among the fascinating people and events of the Napoleonic era. He is currently working on his third novel.
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I read James Conroyd Martin's first novel, PUSH NOT THE RIVER, when it was released in 2001. I found it captivating and thrilling on the scale of Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND, which seems to be the benchmark for all epic novels (and by the way, any Hollywood producers reading this, PUSH NOT THE RIVER would make an equally thrilling and, I'm sure, lucrative film project as that book's film version). I was quickly caught up in PUSH NOT THE RIVER, a world I knew very little about when beginning the journey. I really could not put the book down and read it straight through. In the ensuing years, since reading Mr. Martin's first novel, the characters and their dramatic historic experiences never left me. Mr. Martin's characters visited my imagination from time to time over the last five years, when I least expected them. They were always welcome guests. Upon reading a press release that Mr. Martin was writing a follow-up book to PUSH NOT THE RIVER called AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I wondered if he could match the high standard of writing he demonstrated in his first book, and if I would get as involved in its sequel. AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY did not disappoint. From the first page of AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY I had no doubts that Mr. Martin is not just a one-book wonder. I was drawn in from the beginning. It had been several years since I read the first book. Within a very few pages I was reminded who these characters were, and all they had experienced in the first book. I still knew these people and the Poland of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. And I cared about them deeply. Once Mr. Martin had quickly reintroduced me to his characters, the ride began. I was immediately swept into the chaos and madness of the Napoléonic vision for a new Europe, and that excitement lasted until I closed the book after reading the final page. I have no doubt that AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY would be equally as compelling and thrilling to any person who had not had not read the first novel. For anyone who enjoyed PUSH NOT THE RIVER, it's new companion book, AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY, is a welcome new friend. For those who are only acquainted with the second book, I have no doubt it stands as a complete work by itself. And I can't imagine those people not wanting to then read the first book. It holds up as a complete work in itself as well. I thoroughly enjoyed both. A few years ago, Polish jokes were taken for granted as humorous, harmless and accurate representations of Poles. Mr. Martin obliterates those stereotypes and misconceptions. After reading both PUSH NOT THE RIVER and AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY, and learning of the nobility of these progressive, proud and oppressed people, I'm ashamed of every Polish joke I ever told or laughed at.
While fleeing the Russian assault on Warsaw, the arrogant Countess Zofia falls off a suburban bridge into the River Vistula only to be rescued by a teenage peasant and his grandfather. When she recovers, she returns to the capital to stay at the home of her suitor Count Pawel, whose previous offer of marriage she has rejected as Zofia plans to wed Napoleon. However, she is carrying a child so Zofia must modify her plans for now as the Little Emperor remains her ultimate objective.--------------- At the same time, Zofia¿s cousin Anna has married her true love Lord Jan Stelnicki, who tries to be a father to her son Jan Michal, an offspring of a rape (see PUSH NOT THE RIVER). Anna soon gives birth to their son, Tadeusz at time when supoerpowers Austria, Prussia and Russia divide the nation and force the Polish King Stanislaw into exile who seeks help from Napoleon. As Zofia, who has given birth to a daughter, manipulates her way up the aristocratic elite ladder, Pawel plots to place Tadeusz on the throne, and Jan joins the resistance while his wife worries and rusticates raising their two sons alone even as the years move on-------------------- AGAINST A CRIMSON SKY continues the saga of Anna Berezowska and her family as Poland is caught in a deadly vise from its more powerful neighbors. The story line provides a feel for the history, but is more a historical romance spanning over two decades of two people (Jan and Anna) trying to do what they feel is right for their country yet also keep their loved ones safe. In many devious ways Zofia is the star of the tale as a Lady Macbeth plotting at the cost of others (collateral damage) to achieve her goal. Fans of Polish historical tales and Regency era romances but in central Europe will enjoy James Conroyd Martin¿s fine sequel.------- Harriet Klausner
Absolutely one of the best books I've ever read! It's addicting, thrilling, and just one of those books where you are instantly in love with the characters. Definitely read Push Not the River first... both amazing books!
Historical fiction is my favorite genre-both for intriguing reading and for bringing a personal dimension to events that are usually portrayed in a dry, factual way. James Conroyd Martin's book, Against a Crimson Sky, is the best of all possible worlds: a well-plotted, well-written, fascinating account of a strong and unique heroine. The setting in Poland is the piece de resistance: my ancestors, while not of the nobility (minor or otherwise), were Polish, and Martin's book brings to life a time and place that has been difficult for me to imagine. Against a Crimson Sky continues the story, begun in the author's first novel, Push Not the River (St. Martin's Press, 2003) of Anna Maria Berezowska, an ancestor of Martin's friend, John A. Stelnicki. The Stelnicki family kept Anna's diary, written in her teens, sealed in wax for several decades and only recently translated it from the original Polish. Set in partitioned Poland in the 1790s, some of the events in Push Not the River seem hard to believe: Anna's dangerous winter journey and Zofia's promiscuous behavior among others. As the story develops, however, both the individual characters and the historical events taking place in Poland bring this important era in Poland's history vividly to life. As the book closes, Poland has been erased from the map of Europe by those who feared her Third of May Constitution, the first democratic constitution in Europe. Anna's stormy early years take a turn to what she hopes will be a quiet life with her handsome suitor, Jan Stelnicki. Against a Crimson Sky picks up where Push Not the River ended. Anna's diary did not continue past 1794, therefore Martin had to imagine Anna and Jan's life over the next 20 years. His imagination is more than equal to the events laid out for him in the diary: the emotion and turmoil of the first book are not abated in the second. Anna becomes Jan's wife and is mother to three children, only two of whom are Jan's. A strong Polish woman struggling during bitter and lonely times, Anna does whatever is necessary to keep her children safe from those who would manipulate or harm them. Her cousin Zofia's eyebrow-raising exploits add another bittersweet note to the story, and provide a glimpse into the life of the Polish szlachta (minor nobility) as well as some of the Polish social customs of that era. Poland's situation at the turn of the 19th century provides a riveting setting. It is the time of Napoleon, who plays on the hopes and dreams of the Polish people, promising much in return for their support of his ambitious plans. Hoping for a return to an independent Poland, Jan joins those who fight for Napoleon. Ultimately, his sons participate in Napoleon's ill-fated march to Moscow, where Poland's hopes of liberty are crushed along with Napoleon's reputation. While Anna and Jan's story will captivate any reader who enjoys historical fiction, Poland's story is even more compelling, especially for those of us whose ancestors originated there. The ideals and strength of these determined people, who vowed never to lose their national identity-and did not, through many years of partition and expatriation-will resonate with anyone of Polish ancestry. The Polish-American community has recognized Martin's contributions. The American Institute of Polish Culture recently chose him as a Gold Medal recipient, to be awarded in January 2007. But even beyond that, James Martin is a fine writer, whose skills in his first book are even more evident in his second. Whether or not he chooses Poland as the subject matter, I eagerly await his next book. Visit James Conroyd Martin's website. Reviewer: Nancy Maciolek Blake