The vividness of this novel, the liveliness of its narrative, the wonderful dialogues, the interesting social background: all of this means that reading Headstrong is a highly pleasurable experience, not only stimulating the reader’s inquisitiveness – the book is about little-known events taking place 1050 years ago in North-East Europe during the process of Christianisation – but also thrilling them with the breadth and scope of the vision of the world at that time. Everything in Headstrong seems very real, very distinct, fascinating in its very nature: politics and war and love.
Elżbieta Cherezińska has written a book about the beginnings of the Polish state and its first rulers: Mieszko I and Bolesław I the Brave. But first and foremost this book is about Świętosława, the fascinating daughter of the first of the two men, who was also the sister of the second. This woman, exceptional in every respect – a Piast princess and a Scandinavian queen, has finally found a place worthy of her in literature. And with her come her numerous female relatives and cousins. If history says anything at all about them, it is only in the footnotes.
Świętosława – in Scandinavia known as Sigrid Storrada or Gunhild, Queen of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and, for a short period of time, also England – is not often mentioned in historical sources, and the sparse extant information is often contradictory, opening it up to speculation, thus allowing the imagination to run free. In her earlier books, and particularly in Crown of snow and blood, the author of Headstrong has proven that she can be imaginative, yet at the same time remain within the boundaries of myths and legends. She does not transport her characters into the realm of fairy tales. Cherezińska’s new novel is crafted upon a strong historical foundation.
Even though historians often see Świętosława as a stern, or even cruel, ruler, Cherezińska presents her as an awe inspiring figure. She was her father’s true daughter; the interests of the community, the public, not to mention the state, were more important to her than her own personal happiness. And at the same time she wasn’t the one to easily forget a grievance, much less someone’s contempt. The Mother of Kings, wife of Eric the Victorious and mother of Saint Olaf, was a proud and courageous woman, and an independent one even by contemporary standards. She was simply exceptional.
Elżbieta Cherezińska often says, half jokingly, that she has “got the hots for the Piasts”. And this is indeed the case. Her first novel about the Piast dynasty, published in 2010, was Bone game. In this book she has described the relations between the Poland of Bolesław I the Brave and Otto III’s Holy Roman Empire, highlighting the details of the Congress of Gniezno. Two years later she published the bestseller Crown of snow and blood, which takes place in 13th century Poland, during the time of the fragmentation of the Polish state. Invisible crown was published in 2014 and is a novel linked to Crown of snow and blood, which shows Władysław I the Elbow-high’s attempts at taking over the Polish throne.
“I will always love the Piasts,” the writer declared in my interview with her, “because it was our first Royal dynasty and in Poland there were only two great dynasties: the Piasts and the Jagiellons. The Piasts were the first and they appeared quite unexpectedly on the historical stage. We had nothing then – there were just forests around and suddenly…! They were there and already by the second generation they started playing an important role in these parts. These were exceptionally forceful people; they combined natural intelligence with, I would say, intuition, an instinct for power, with tremendous energy and strength. There was something highly sensual about them…”
Within just a few years Elżbieta Cherezińska has become one of the most widely read authors in Poland. And when it comes to historical fiction she is in a league of her own. It’s worth adding that she is not just focussed on one theme, which is confirmed by the successes of Legion, which tells a truly sensational story of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, and you also have Tournament of shadows, which takes place in the 19th century during the conflict between Russia and England over their influence in Afghanistan and the future dominance of Asia.
It is apparent, however, that Cherezińska is very happy to return to the Piasts, which is confirmed by the exceptional scope of Headstrong. This huge, 600-page volume only describes the Świętosława’s early years. The follow-up will be The Queen. Those who enjoy delving into vast stories, who savour subplots and putting themselves into full-blooded characters’ shoes – living out their problems and dramas, will surely be very happy with this book.
Translated by Anna Hyde