The fifth season of Vikings has come and gone, and who knows how long fans will be waiting for the much anticipated Game of Thrones finale. Thankfully, The Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker’s thrilling historical novel debut, is a boon to those who need a medieval battle fix between now and then.
The Half-Drowned King is set in ninth century Norway. It 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. It is an atmospheric portrait of the experience 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, 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. At the point 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 at 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’s explores female characters from all walks of life in loving detail. Maids, matrons and widowed, all are given more latitude to decide their own fate in ancient northern Europe than their southern Christianized sisters. Though as a class, women are still at a marked disadvantage in a world where physical strength is the coin of the realm. Hartsuyker's female characters are no shrinking violets. To quote the moviefied 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 persistant 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. Given cabin fever of a long dark winter, a norm of violence, a culture where insults to honor are deeply felt, add buckets of alcohol to fan the flames 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:
“It had become haunted. The boy ran wild. Men had been killed in duels—or nothing as formal as a duel—and their bodies lay unburied around the hall. It had snowed early that year at least, so the stench was not so bad until I came into the hall. King Hunthiof said ‘I would bid you welcome, but we are the dead here, and there is no welcome from the dead, for the dead.’ His words chilled me. I could see that he had taken leave of his senses, and that his men, those that remained, had followed him into madness. His son, Solvi, had recovered from his injuries enough to walk, but he did not speak. He only wandered among the fallen men—and none could tell those fallen from drink from those fallen in death. He ate and drank whatever had been left to spoil on the table. I saw him vomiting in a corner before I left, with no woman to care for him, to wipe his face. I do not know what happened to the women who once served the hall, but sometimes I have dreams about it.”
The ubiquitous gore in Hartsuyker’s book is all the more horrible for its well researched reality. 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 common place. 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 - so telling you who would be an unforgivable spoiler to Hartsuyker’s tale. 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:
“A great mouth of ice, dark and blue in its recesses…cold air issued from it, the giant’s breath…a narrow stream of water cascaded into a pool far below, passing every shade of blue from white to midnight before plummeting into darkness”
The Half-Drowned King opens a window into 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 shift the ground under their feet. Every page carries a visceral presence of the mythic and the epic. This is the first book in a planned trilogy: The Sea Queen comes out the summer of 2018 and The Golden Wolf 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.
cross-post from FictionUnbound.com