BookBrowse Reviews The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

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The Half-Drowned King

by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker X
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Gary Presley

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The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.

The Half-Drowned King is the start of Linnea Hartsuyker's epic trilogy following young Harold Fairhair's fight to unite the Norse under one king, a goal he can only achieve through war, statecraft, and subtlety.

It's the 9th century, and there are Norse settlements stretching along the rugged, fjord-dotted west coast of Norway – only there is no official Norway yet. So the Norse reign in fiefdoms scattered from Harald's home county of Vestfold, northward to Hordaland, Sogn, North and South Maer, Trondelag, and Halogaland – "lands separated by kings and valleys, lands that will never be reconciled to one another."

This is no royal paean. While Harald is the overarching catalyst, the tale is centered on Ragnvald Eysteinsson, a young man only slightly older than teenaged Harald. Ragnvald's father is dead and his mother is remarried to a lesser warrior, Olaf. Olaf was to hold the family's property in trust for Ragnvald, but as Ragnvald reaches maturity, Olaf sends him viking* with the son of a neighboring jarl (a local chieftain) with the expectation that Ragnvald will be killed in a raid or assassinated. As the novel opens, that plot fails, and Ragnvald goes on to form alliances and friendships with other local clans and chieftains, lastly with Harald, in hopes of regaining his lost inheritance.

Ragnvald's a worthy protagonist, a youngster forced quickly into maturity where he proves to be a brave, aggressive warrior and a calm, intelligent strategist. Older, calloused warriors willingly follow his lead and Jarls take his advice, but Hartsuyker also gives him realistic shadows. Ragnvald will execute family of foe rather than leave an agent of possible revenge. His adventures, with or without Harald's company, are perilous even as he protects himself from betrayal and plots revenge on Olaf.

Svanhild, Ragnvald's sister, plays lead in a related, secondary plot thread. Seeking a prosperous alliance, Olaf had promised the 15-year-old maiden to an elderly widowed neighbor, but Svanhild is too independent to submit. After manipulations and escapes, Svanhild has a love-at-first-sight encounter with Solvi the Short, the son of a jarl. That jarl, however, was the man who bargained with Olaf for Ragnvald's assassination, and Solvi was the man who made the attempt. That blood debt – Ragnvald wants revenge on Solvi, of course – complicates the deep love and loyalty Ragnvald has for his sister.

Hartsuyker's narrative is complex, which is not unexpected considering he's penning stories of shifting alliances, battles, murders, hostage-taking, assassination, and revenge. Nevertheless, it's easily followed, even with sometimes troublesome and inaccessible character names like Guthorm, Oddbjorn Huntiofsson, and Heming Hakonsson. The power of Hartsuyker's tale truly overwhelms such minor inconveniences.

Through Svanhild and other female characters, comes an insight into a woman's place in Norse society. Strong women could be independent, but women were generally seen as some man's chattel. Hartsuyker explores Norse gender roles - especially the all too familiar sexual double standard. A Norse man might rape on a raid or force a female thrall (slave) into sex with the apparent acquiescence of his wife, but a woman could not be a libertine.

Illustrating the profits of extensive research, Hartsuyker's insights into Norse society are intriguing. Solvi is called "the Short" because he was severely burnt as a child, his legs seriously damaged. He was left unattended to suffer, survival or death his fate. Solvi, and later Svanhild as his wife, are outliers among the Norse jarls and would-be-kings. In this first episode, Solvi decides he will be a Sea King, a Norse warrior who prefers raiding over politics. That Svanhild chooses to accompany Solvi on his raids is even further outside Norse norms. Throughout it all, Hartsuyker spins out interesting information on diets, construction of shelters, life aboard the longboats, sleeping arrangements, and clothing, including that a warrior's sleeves were buttonless and required being sewn shut every time they were worn. Throughout it all, the pace and the tension keep the pages turning, allowing more than one opportunity for descriptions like that of an old raider with "a graveyard of half-rotted teeth in his mouth."

The Norse farmed, yes, and raised a few animals, but a Norse lived to go raiding and plundering. That Darwinian outlook – "Kindness meant obligation ..." – carried over to every day life, the activities of which are sketched as background. Hartsuyker writes of the cold, the icy fjords, and winds, but those rugged conditions seem to have little affect on the Norse warriors. Meat and ale, and an overnight on a rocky beach, and the warriors are ready to row toward plunder the next day. And thus comes the sword and sail action that sets the pace, from shield wall battles to all-night sails to rescuing a besieged warrior band. There's sufficient conflict, both internal and external, between raids and sieges and murders that the depth of historical and social insight provide the perfect balance.

Adept and intelligent, imaginative and literate, Hartsuyker's foray into historical fiction is appealing enough to reach beyond that genre's audience and find fans among devotees of The Lord of the Rings and other sagas in fantastical settings.


*Archeologists have discovered runes from the areas inhabited by the Norse (clans originating from present day Denmark, Norway and Sweden) which suggest that viking can be used both as a noun to describe someone who leaves his homeland for adventure and for profit from raiding, and as a verb for the act of raiding itself (e.g. to go viking). It is often used as verb in the novel.

Reviewed by Gary Presley

This review was originally published in October 2017, and has been updated for the June 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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