Early on, Anna marries Jan Stelnicki, her long-time love. Soon their happiness is shattered when he takes up arms in Napoleon’s army, leaving her at the mercy of a corrupt official who claims their son is at the centre of a Masonic plan to resurrect the Polish monarchy. This thread is central to the rest of the story and its many subplots, including one highlighting Anna’s ambitious cousin, Zofia Grońska, and Zofia’s lover, Paweł Potecki.
Martin’s main strength lies in his characters. Each one is a real person; even the less savoury ones have at least one redeeming feature. Anna and Zofia dominate the book, as well they should. In times of war, women must find inner strength to carry on with life at home or risk losing everything, and in this the cousins succeed.
Another of the author’s strengths is his ability to recreate the past. Never once did I question his setting, so convincingly does he blend period detail into the narrative. Though the pacing in the first part is rather slow, it picks up soon afterwards and never flags. I was busy flipping pages, eager to know what happened next. This despite the sometimes awkward prose and annoying tendency of main characters to address each other by their first names (something few of us do in everyday conversation). I also deplored the stock interpretation of Empress Josephine.
Those reservations aside, I believe readers will revel in this engrossing tale of courage, family loyalty, and the Polish nation.
© Teresa Eckford, 2006
This review first appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review