Artturi Leinonen's Hakkapeliitat series (originally released as three novels) relates the adventures of a group of (Finnish) cavalry (whom the author refers to as dragoons) serving under the rule of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus during the 30 Years War. Written in 1932-1934, the storytelling style is old-fashioned: there's no strong overall plot and the story tends to get lost on tangents every now and then. Still, it is a fun read, overall, and deserving of a lot more attention than it has received in the recent years.
The story begins in Kurikka, Finland, with the introduction of the main protagonist Niisius (Dionisius) as he takes his brother's place in the King's service (the brother having fled conscription into the deep woods) even though he has studied to become a priest. He receives short training in Turku before he and the others board ships headed for Germany and the war, leaving their loved ones behind. Here we are also introduced to Hannu Jänis, who is to become the comic relief, well-meaning stumbling oaf type of sidekick for Niisius. The story of the first novel jumps quickly through the first months of the war to show the siege and capture of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and then continues onto the devastation of Magdeburg and finally to Gustavus Adolphus' great victory at Leipzig (all this in little more than 200 pages). The first novel is marked by its humour and generally lighthearted attitude, especially in comparison to what follows: the second novel proceeds to describe hunger and the ravages of the plague and ends in the tragedy of Lützen and the third novel brings us back to Finland - and its miseries of hunger and over-taxation - to hunt down deserters who are causing havoc in the wilderness.
In addition to the overall tone of the series going from more humorous to more tragic, there first novel is also set apart by its looser attachment to historical detail. Granted, the historical sources on many of the battles of the 30 Years War are often unclear and conflicting, but Leinonen has sometimes created interpretations that are very much his own. Likewise, he gives the men sabres (curved swords) at an era when the swords were still straight and double-edged and has the army using leather cannons, although modern research shows that the king had most likely abandoned these (in favour of slightly heavier, but still very manoeuvrable field cannons) before the beginning of the German campaign (of course Leinonen wrote his stories before this knowledge). The worst offender to historical reality, however, were the use and frequent threats of hanging as a punishment for almost any offense. In reality, in the Swedish army, worst offenders were usually shot and other punishments ranged from riding a wooden horse to running through a path of your peers who are allowed to hit you with various weapons. Hanging was not even mentioned in the Articles of War. More to the point, deserters were rarely killed outright; there are stories of men who were recaptured several times and brought back to the front lines.
A good contender for the above mistake is the author's insistence on calling the Hakkapeliittas dragoons. Dragoons, at that time, were an entirely different type of troops with very different type of responsibilities (that in later centuries took the role of light cavalry). But at this time, during the Thirty Years War, Hakkapeliittas were most decidedly light cavalry and should not be confused with dragoons.
With the second and the third novel, historical accuracy gets better - especially in the last novel which shows the author's great knowledge of 17th century life in Finland - and the characters get a little more interesting. Niisius begins to see the atrocities of war and questions its purpose as well as his own life choices as he falls in love and becomes aware of human mortality. His sidekick Hannu Jänis grounds himself as a memorable character in a very comedic sequence involving his pledge not to speak a word until he and Niisius return back to the Swedish army. Other characters also begin to stand out, although I must admit that I would have happily managed without one who kept singing the same song with only slightly different words over and over again. I kept hoping for his death.
Although the first novel almost made me abandon the series - especially because of the author's insistence on exaggerating the role of Finns in the Swedish campaign and their manliness in comparison to other nationalities - I'm happy that I stayed with it until the end. The second and the third novel made up for many of the weaknesses of the first one and I enjoyed reading them despite some overlong sequences and surprising lapses of memory or intelligence from some of the main characters. With an addition of even one or two sword duels or fights, this would have made a great swashbuckler.
For a great second opinion, please check out my wife's blog, Wrestles with Words.