The Half-Drowned King: A fascinating tale of revenge and freedom

The Half-Drowned King: A Novel Hardcover – August 1, 2017 by Linnea HartsuykerThe Half-Drowned King: A Novel Hardcover –  August 1, 2017 by Linnea HartsuykerThe Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King (2017), Linnea Hartsuyker’s debut novel, is a fascinating glimpse into a long-ago time, when Scandinavian warriors took their dragon-boats as far south as Constantinople or west to Ireland, trading with and terrorizing the locals, depending on regional treaties and individual temperaments. By necessity, this accounting of events leading up to the coronation of King Harald Fairhair is largely fictionalized, but as most sagas and poems about his life were compiled a few centuries after his death — rather like King Arthur of Britain — their own historical accuracy should be taken with a pinch of salt and enjoyed for their entertainment value.

Set roughly in the late 9th century, The Half-Drowned King focuses on three individuals whose lives and fates are inextricably bound, and whose actions will affect Harald’s rise to power in unexpected ways. Ragnvald Eysteinsson is on his way home from a successful raid in Ireland when he is attacked by the convoy’s leader, Solvi Hunthiofsson, and left to drown. A kind fisherman spares him, however, and Ragnvald is filled with desire for revenge against Solvi and any who might have profited from this deed, including his own stepfather. To this end, he makes a series of alliances that eventually bring him to the attention of a teenager named Harald, who is rumored to have the gods’ own favor in his quest to unite the lesser kingdoms of Norway. Harald is a brash young man, his head filled with his mother’s prophecies of greatness and his uncle’s battle tactics, but he’s wise enough to seek the counsel of other men and knows how to inspire loyalty in his followers.

Svanhild, Ragnvald’s younger sister, dreams of freedom and distant shores, but appears to have no options beyond what her cruel stepfather deems advantageous for himself; when an opportunity is presented, her decision puts her at odds with both her beloved brother and his most hated enemy. Solvi himself is the only son of a sea king, a man who gains the majority of his wealth and power from raids rather than fields, and gradually finds himself torn between his lust for adventure and his rightful duties to the people who owe him fealty. As their storylines diverge, merge, and diverge again, Hartsuyker allows ample room for development and introspection, creating fascinating people whose struggles and choices are captivating even when they seem self-defeating.

Ragnvald and his fellows accept as fact the notion that the supernatural and mundane live hand in glove; dreams and visions are taken very seriously, and it is commonly believed that the gods and otherworldly creatures like hulda and draugr walk among men. Sorceresses have the power to foresee the future or cast spells upon the dead to make them walk again. A person’s wyrd, their fate, is bound up in whether the gods favor them or wish them ill. While some warriors might scoff at childish fears of dead men who prowl through the night, that doesn’t stop them from making sacrifices to Odin or flinging gold into the sea in an attempt to stave off the goddess Ran’s clutches. Hartsuyker brings these elements and many more to life in The Half-Drowned King, providing a detailed look at the everyday domestic lives of her characters in addition to their glorious battles and diplomatic struggles, putting what must have been extensive research to excellent use.

The Half-Drowned King is a little lighter on the kennings and word-play than Norse saga enthusiasts might be hoping for: one king calls his men “[m]y war serpents, my treasure hands,” another names “our new sword hands, our new raven feeders,” and a third king is referred to as a “generous ring giver,” all of which are expected appellations. I would have liked to see a few more examples of “swan-roads,” “sea steeds,” or “blood-worms” thrown in for good measure, to further enrich the text and help readers immerse themselves in the language and traditions of these people. Hartsuyker also streamlines person- and place-names — to borrow her own example, “Solvi rather than Sölvi,” — which will undoubtedly be an easier transition for novices, but may disappoint readers looking for strict authenticity.

By focusing her efforts on people who worked to aid or thwart Harald Fairhair, rather than retelling yet another Chosen One tale, Hartsuyker is able to create a rich and complex story of love and betrayal. Though a quick Internet search might tell you how it all ultimately is said to have ended, I’d recommend that readers wait, and enjoy the story as it unfolds. The Half-Drowned King is the first volume in a planned trilogy, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how eagerly I’m looking forward to the next book. Highly recommended.

Published August 1, 2017. An exhilarating saga of the Vikings that conjures a brutal, superstitious, and thrilling ninth-century world and the birth of a kingdom—the debut installment in a historical literary trilogy that combines the bold imagination and sweeping narrative power of Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander. Centuries ago, in a blood-soaked land ruled by legendary gods and warring men, a prophecy foretold of a high king who would come to reign over all of the north… Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the son and grandson of kings, grew up believing that he would one day take his dead father’s place as chief of his family’s lands. But, sailing home from a raiding trip to Ireland, the young warrior is betrayed and left for dead by men in the pay of his greedy stepfather, Olaf. Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is determined to have revenge for his stepfather’s betrayal, claim his birthright and the woman he loves, and rescue his beloved sister Svanhild. Opportunity may lie with Harald of Vestfold, the strong young Norse warrior rumored to be the prophesied king. Ragnvald pledges his sword to King Harald, a choice that will hold enormous consequence in the years to come. While Ragnvald’s duty is to fight—and even die—for his honor, Svanhild must make an advantageous marriage, though her adventurous spirit yearns to see the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has arranged a husband for her—a hard old man she neither loves nor desires. When the chance to escape Olaf’s cruelty comes at the hands of her brother’s arch rival, the shrewd young woman is forced to make a heartbreaking choice: family or freedom. Set in a mystical and violent world defined by honor, loyalty, deceit, passion, and courage, The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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