Countries have a long history of ingratitude towards those who save them from peril. This book, in fictional form, was the first part of a planned trilogy detailing how the Polish army under King Jan Sobieski rescued the Western world from the encroachment of the Turks, by relieving the siege of Vienna in 1683. Without that victory, our entire history would probably have changed. What thanks did Poland receive for this tremendous accomplishment? It was dismembered by the very countries it had saved!
Sienkiewicz was a fine writer, unfortunately nearly unknown in these times. This is a robust work, but there is a dominant theme of patriotism infusing his characters. Rarely is love of country shown so clearly as in this work. It is also a love story, and a well-told one at that. The book has Sienkiewicz's usual elements: star-crossed lovers, strudy and loyal heroes, hissable villans, and characters who offer welcome comic relief. The writing is a bit old fashioned at times, but the patriotic feeling with which it was written practically leaps off the page at you. This book is much shorter than Sienkiewicz's other works that I have read, but its brevity does not diminish its impact.
First of all, as much as I love this book, I'd suggest that the first Henryk Sienkiewicz book a person should read be either Quo Vadis or With Fire and Sword. They are long but worth it. This book - incredible as it is - is almost just a fragment compared with the giant scale and spirit of his other books that I've read. Even so, it is head and shoulders above most literature in so many ways.
You really get a sense of the times from Sienkiewicz, and this book is no exception. The descriptions of the armies and the countryside and the people in them establish a very concrete setting. Even so, Sienkiewicz infuses everything in the book with thematic relevance, but it is all done so very subtly that only gradually does the reader cumulatively percieve what the author wants him to understand. This must have been very difficult to accomplish, but he makes it seem effortless.
All the characterizations are centered on ideals and you come to know the people in the story through what they stand for and do. It hardly matters what any character's goal is. What's important here is the idealism and purity - or lack thereof - with which they pursue those goals. The heroes are extremely idealized, and the villians are predatory and evil. The "damsel in distress" is not typecast as a ditz. She is a full participant in the action - almost the main character - and her nobility is played off to great advantage against the trials she goes through. It's hard to resist such larger than life portrayals. Plus, the action is fast paced and always interesting.
Admitedly, this novel was the first of a planned trilogy that Sienkiewicz never completed and it shows a little. On the Field of Glory stands on its own, but it is still just a first act. Jacek's character is probably developed more fully in what would have been book two. In On the Field of Glory, we see powerful, passionate people who are being swept up into a greater conflict, but we do not get to see that greater conflict.
An excellent book that stands on its own, but it's a great loss to world literature that Sienkiewicz couldn't complete the trilogy!