There is another month to wait before Vikings begins its fifth season on the History channel, and no one knows how long until the much-anticipated final season of Game of Thrones airs. Thankfully, The Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker’s thrilling historical novel debut, is a boon to readers who can’t wait another second for their next medieval battle fix.
The Half-Drowned King, set in ninth-century Norway, is inspired by Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, which relates the semi-mythic rise of Harald I and the forging of Norway into a single kingdom out of a pack of squabbling warlords. The novel is an atmospheric portrait of life drenched in the pre-Christian beliefs that tried to make sense of a land so extraordinarily harsh. There are blood feuds, warlords, undead—who harry the living when their spirits cannot rest—and rumors of frost giants in the dark north. Every king can trace his ancestry back to Odin. Death is never more than a footstep away, and the fates rule the lives of all, men and women alike.
Hartsuyker’s novel focuses on the story of Ragnvald and Svanhild, a brother and sister in the tradition of Hamlet: their step-father murdered their father, stole his lands and married their mother. In the first chapter, an assassin very nearly drowns Ragnvald, at the behest of his step-father. On the verge of death Ragnvald has a vision: Rán, goddess of the sea, draws Ragnvald down to her underwater hall where he sits down to feast, accepting his fate to be made one her warriors. A golden wolf interrupts the feast and calls Ragnvald back to life. When Ragnvald is rescued, he eventually follows Harald I, who Ragnvald sees as the golden wolf from his vision, the one favored by the gods to unite all of Norway.
Meanwhile back home, Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild chafes at the limits placed on her experience as a woman: her brother sails out to seize the world while she takes the cows out to pasture. She understands how to manage a hall and a farm, but is under no illusions that keeping herself at home holds any more safety than being in the thick of battle on the sea. And given the choice, she’d rather be at sea.
One of the best features of the book is that Hartsuyker explores female characters from all walks of life. Maids, matrons, and widows alike are given more latitude to decide their own fate in ancient northern Europe than their Christianized southern sisters. As a class, women are still at a marked disadvantage in a world where physical strength is the coin of the realm, but Hartsuyker’s female characters are no shrinking violets. To quote the Peter Jackson’s version of Tolkien: “The women of this country learned long ago, those without swords can still die upon them.”
Hartsuyker highlights the constant tension that pits domestic farmhouse rhythms against the persistent threat of gore, body horror, rape, and burning halls. The hall is only as safe as the strength of arms protecting it. The moment the guard drops, the wolves are at the door. There is also a threat from within. Start with a culture where violence is the norm and insults to honor are deeply felt, add to it a dose of cabin fever bred by long, dark winters and buckets of alcohol, and you have a volatile combination.
Sometimes the trauma is too much. In one poignant scene the merchant Solmund tells of his visit to the hall of King Hunthiof after a raid that left the king’s wife dead and their toddler son maimed by the fire:
The ubiquitous gore in Hartsuyker’s book is all the more horrible for its well-researched historicity. What a sword and axe do to a human body is not pretty. And in these harsh times axes were cleaving bodies right and left. Rape is brutal and commonplace. Even consensual sex in The Half-Drowned King is not so much a lusty exercise as a practical part of relationships. It is not always handled well by the naive and the inept, the fearful and the insecure. But tender moments and lyrical beauty weave through the narrative like a bright thread. Svanhild does marry. I’m not going to name her final choice, as a significant tension in the book has to do with the question of who that might be—no spoilers here. Svanhild and her husband find a love filled with “days of honey” when they finally do embrace each other without expectation. Gorgeous descriptions abound in Hartsuyker’s writing, painting a stark landscape filled with wild beauty. The Vikings sail among fjords where water falls in curtains over cliffs, where the fickle sun makes “rock the color of weathered wood shine like gold.” An enourmous ice cave, like the mouth of a monstrous frost giant, is the setting for both the blossoming of love and the plotting of revenge:
The Half-Drowned King opens a window into the richly imagined lives of those who endure the constant stress and trauma of a hard life in the ancient European north. Hartsuyker’s characters rely on visions and the examples of the great heroes and fearless women of the past to carry them through when circumstances abruptly and violently shift the ground under their feet. Every page carries a visceral presence of the mythic and the epic. Even better, this is the first book in a planned trilogy: The Sea Queen will be released in the summer of 2018, and The Golden Wolf is due in the summer of 2019. I look forward to revisiting Hartsuyker’s characters in years to come as they roam the wild northern land and sea.