The Half-Drowned King - Linnea Hartsuyker
The Half-Drowned King - Linnea Hartsuyker ****
The Half-Drowned King is the first part of a trilogy set around the time of the warring Viking kingdoms that would eventually establish Harald as the first King of all Norway, but just because it is based on real history doesn't necessarily mean that it can't be worthy of comparison to Game of Thrones or other fantasy epics. It's all down to the telling of course and in whether the author can weave some mythology, magic and some relatable human interest into a story from an age that has no direct written accounts. Linnea Hartsuyker does this very well indeed, with perhaps more elaboration on character than action, but as a first book this establishes the context and motivations well for what lies ahead.
Context is all-important of course, and not just for the historical background. It's important also to make a ninth-century mindset relatable and palatable to a modern readership, but not go quite so far as to completely lose any credibility by making the Vikings too enlightened in their thinking and behaviour. These are after all a nation of ruthless marauders who murder rape and pillage, operate to ancient traditions of ownership, family and community loyalty and hold pagan beliefs. In The Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker has two strong characters with real historical backgrounds that act as a successful intermediary into this world for a modern reader.
The author makes this work very well indeed and, essentially, it serves the purpose and theme of this epic trilogy as a whole, which is to show a growth between old ways and beliefs into a new way of thinking and living. It's more too than just a fictionalised telling of historical events and it's more than just a typical fantasy epic of murder, plotting, building allegiances and waging wars; it's about how a time comes when older values and traditions have to be questioned and new ways of living and coexisting have to be adopted in a changing world. Linnea Hartsuyker makes the motivations and rationale behind it credible in this carefully considered and densely plotted book where complex alliances come into conflict with personal and familial rivalries.
The two main characters that as act as both intermediaries between the past and the present for the reader, as well as being instrumental as agents of change in ninth century Norway are Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanhild. Ragnvald survives an attempt on his life after a raiding mission in Ireland, surviving drowning in a Norwegian fjord on the way home. He intends to return seemingly from the dead, accuse his rival Solvi of betrayal, and reclaim the inheritance and the land that it appears his stepfather is trying to take from him. This will involve Ragnvald swearing allegiance to another king at a time when the young Harald is gaining a considerable reputation and support to be the one king of a single nation.
For fifteen year-old Svanhild, the question of alliances and allegiances is also important, but in the case of women, it's more a matter of forming a protective marriage alliance. Her stepfather and Ragnvald have made arrangements for a suitable match, but Svanhild has ideas of her own and her choice of partner - made partly through necessity and partly through an inexplicable attraction - risks placing brother and sister on different sides of the divide that is starting to form in the rapidly changing situation in the land.
Of course King Harald Fairhair, who would become the first king of Norway, is also a significant character in The Half-Drowned King, but this first volume of the trilogy is primarily concerned with the troubled period leading up to his eventual coronation. It might not seem all that troubled however, and the first part can seem to be quite slow moving getting there. This is not a novel that spends a large part of its bulk in pitched land or sea battles, but takes a rather more gentle pace that nonetheless weaves a complicated picture of personal ambitions pitched against the reality of the shifting tides of power taking place; a reality that is very different depending on whether you are a man or a woman in Norse society.
It's a situation that the author handles exceptionally well with a wide purview, getting inside the heads of the characters and creating a credible rationale for shifting allegiances that are more likely to derive from personal enmities, old rivalries and conflicting personal motivations. Keeping well away from the grand guignol of Game of Thrones, Hartsuyker forms rounded believable characters out of these figures who act and behave in recognisable ways, even as their actions and way of life still seems far away from our own, establishing well the situation on the ground that will soon lead to greater changes and conflict to come.
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker is published by Little Brown on 1st August 2017.