Elżbieta Cherezińska
The Widow Queen

It is difficult to say how much of the sagas and chronicles is truth and how much fiction, but Elżbieta Cherezińska draws strength from the white spots in history. She boldly fills them with her imagination, without venturing beyond the framework of the medieval world.

Elżbieta Cherezińska
The Widow Queen

It is difficult to say how much of the sagas and chronicles is truth and how much fiction, but Elżbieta Cherezińska draws strength from the white spots in history. She boldly fills them with her imagination, without venturing beyond the framework of the medieval world.

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The old world is coming to an end. And with it, sacred groves, divination, and polygamy. Pagan rites must be abandoned, wooden statues of idols buried, and the priests of the old faith convinced to the new dogmas or killed. This is because Slavic Prince Mieszko must be baptized. Not because he came to believe in Jesus Christ, but because his neighbors are growing stronger, gaining military superiority. The adoption of Christianity by the early Poles was a political decision taken against pagan tradition. The conversion was neither easy nor joyful. Its companions were the fear of revenge from the old gods and the silence of the people, not at all eager to accept an alien faith. Such images provide the starting point for Elżbieta Cherezińska’s 2016 novel Harda [The Widow Queen], in which she spins a story of early medieval times in the lands of today’s Poland.

Patriarchy rules the world of the Slavs at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, but it is not the men who are the main characters of the book. Since apart from religion, something else serves to consolidate power and alliances, namely marriages. And these do not exist without women. It is the springboard on which the author bases her plot. Her way of endowing the female characters with subjectivity. Marriage, especially in the upper classes, the writer argues, did not have to mean slavery for them. It could also be a space to realize their ambitions and even take the initiative and gain power.

Thus, unexpectedly, Prince Mieszko and the heir to power Boleslaw, his son, recede into the background, while Mieszko’s daughter Swietoslawa comes to the fore. As much as Cherezińska enjoys creating characters of determined, often cruel men, she is even more interested in expressive female characters. “A woman has to be strong, in the first place, not to die in childbirth. To outlive her husband in good health and finally be able to rule as a widow and regent” is the heroine’s credo. Mieszko marries her off to Eric the Victorious, King of Sweden. In this way, the Slavic world merges with the world of Scandinavian sagas. When the queen is widowed, she marries for the second time – to Sven of the Skjodlung family (called Sven Forkbeard), ruler of Denmark and Norway. Swietoslawa skillfully plays her “game of thrones”, finding her feet in court intrigues and diplomatic skirmishes. Although sometimes, she also suffers setbacks.

Cherezińska does not fantasize, at least not where she has access to sources. Swietoslawa really existed and sat on the Danish throne. With time, her power and influence expanded to such an extent that today she is referred to as the “mother of kings”. In the Norse sagas, she is referred to by the name of Sigrid, enhanced by the nickname Storråda, meaning Bold. It is difficult to say how much of the sagas and chronicles is truth and how much fiction, but the Polish novelist draws strength from the white spots in history. She boldly fills them with her imagination, without venturing beyond the framework of the medieval world. Where phenomena and circumstances surpass the consciousness of people of the time, the author sets the machinery typical of fantasy literature in motion. Fans of the prose of George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, or Andrzej Sapkowski and his “Witcher” will find much to enjoy here. The difference is that Cherezińska explores femininity, something that is still lacking in world fantasy. She is not afraid of explicit eroticism, regarding sexuality as the greatest strength of medieval women. She talks about the body and sex in the language of duel and the battlefield. It makes perfect sense considering that the reality of the time largely revolved around combat, as we are persuaded by the history of art, literature, and architecture. In The Widow Queen, marriages between families are no less important than the wars they fight. The bed and the alcove thus become yet another battlefield.

Marcin Kube

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The Widow Queen
Author: Elżbieta Cherezińska
Translation: Maya Zakrzewska-Pim
Imprint Publisher: Forge Books
ISBN: 9781250218001
Hardcover / Paperback / Kindle / Audio CD
512 pages

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69

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