A suspenseful and often overlooked chapter in history, the siege of Vienna in the late 17th century is the subject of James Conroyd Martin’s masterful novel, The Boy Who Wanted Wings.
Although Poland’s involvement in the protection of the city from the invading Turks is the mainstay of the book, Martin widens the breadth of his study to underscore the multinational effort undertaken to halt the spread of Islam, providing meticulously researched details about the allied forces of the Saxons, Franconians, and Bavarians uniting to halt the siege of the Ottomans and Crimean Tatars*. Although this is a work of fiction, to the author’s credit, the wealth of historical information provided is beyond impressive. Most helpful is the glossary of Polish cultural and military terms of the time at the outset of the book.
The reader navigates this chapter in Europe’s past with Aleksy Gazdecki, a boy on the verge of manhood whose personal past and present circumstances present no end of identity issues. A Tatar by birth, he was orphaned as an infant and raised by a Polish peasant family, tenants of Lord Halicki. Aleksy’s swarthy complexion and dark, almond-shaped eyes cause him to stand out amongst the Poles and ultimately be treated with suspicion. He longs to join the Winged Hussars, the elite branch of the Polish military whose legendary skills with seventeen-foot-long lances are announced by a uniform that includes “wings.” Although he trains with a former soldier, currently a stablemaster, Aleksy knows how futile his dream is since only men of noble birth can become Winged Hussars.
Amidst the military drama is, of course, personal drama. Aleksy has a chance encounter with the beautiful Krystyna, Lord Halicki’s daughter, and the two engage in a dangerous, secretive romance, jumping the hurdles presented by her family, who are determined to see her married to a wealthy noble, as well as confronting the escalating war at hand. Krystyna’s brothers, the sweet Marek and the haughty, vengeful Roman, will cross paths with Aleksy again and again since he follows them into battle as Marek’s “retainer.”
Just as Aleksy sought to overcome the circumstances of his birth in his romantic life, he will do so also on the battlefield. Ironically, his Tatar heritage gives him the opportunity to save a life, a very important life, and the resulting events put Krystyna within his reach. Martin takes no shortcuts and keeps the reader guessing with a long list of characters and numerous plots twists all carried out with exquisite pacing.
Despite the triumph of the Poles, Martin deftly explores the addictive nature of bloodlust and the true consequences of war. Aleksy is exhausted and saddened by the killing and able to transcend nationalistic feelings. He has killed men, regardless of where they’re from or what faith they practice. It’s an apt observation from a Tatar who has lived his life amongst a people other than his own, a Tatar who has tried to be the most loyal subject of Poland.
This is a novel with staying power. Given the geopolitical situations in the world today, the author reminds us that war has a long and bloody history, and political alliances are intricately tied to this history. James Conroyd Martin’s The Boy Who Wanted Wings will make one most glad for the opportunity to spend time in the 17th century.
*Alternate spelling: Tartar
This book is also available in Softcover (ISBN-13: 978-0997894509) and Hardcover (ISBN-13: 978-0997894516)