Holland, Cecelia. Rakossy.

NY: Atheneum, 1967.

I’ve been a big fan of Holland’s historical novels almost the appearance of her first book, written while she was still a college undergraduate and published shortly after she graduated. This is her second novel, written when she was twenty-one.

The year is 1523 and Janos Rakossy is master of Hart Castle, in the foothills to the east of the wide Hungarian Plain. Just beyond his closely-held territory are the Turks, who are making their way farther into Eastern Europe with each passing year — but this is where they will be stopped if Rakossy and the other Magyar barons have any say in it.

The general opinion on both sides of the slow invasion is that Rakossy sold his soul to the devil for a charmed life and fortune in battle, and the evidence seems to support that judgment. He’s arrogant and restless, passionate and cold by turns, and he knows exactly what he’s doing when he plots and manipulates those around him. His younger brother is back after six years in France and Italy, a discerning gentleman who doesn’t entirely understand the ongoing war — but he’ll find his place in it eventually, rather to Janos’s surprise.

And Rakossy himself has gone to Vienna and taken a bride, the Lady Catherine de Buñez, whose nephew is the young Emperor Charles V. They were friends first and Rakossy is pleased with the marriage, but his ways are taking some getting used to on Catherine’s part. It helps that he loves the fairy tales she recounts for him, even if she doesn’t quite understand why he considers them true — as compared to books, which he doesn’t trust at all. (There’s a fascinating explanation of why this should be.)

There are others in the story, of course: Count Louis Malencz, military commander in the region and Rakossy’s nominal superior, though the latter holds him in contempt; Mustafa ibn Ismail, the Sultan’s designate in Transylvania and Rakossy’s great rival and enemy, even while they respect each other’s abilities; even Rakossy’s long-dead mother and a major influence on both him and his brother (though in very different ways).

And then comes the Turkish attack that Rakossy has been expecting, and for which he has been preparing, leading to a series of sieges against which even his new cannon and gunpowder may not be able to hold out. Holland brings the siege experience to life, too, with such observations as “horse meat wasn’t bad, once they got over the idea that they had ridden it.” This isn’t the author’s most mature work but it’s certainly a very enjoyable reading experience.

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