The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
Digital Audiobook narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies
Published by Harper on August 1, 2017
Series: The Half-Drowned King #1
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction
Length: 448 pages or 15 hours, 33 minutes
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Since the death of Ragnvald Eysteinsson's father in battle, he has worked hard to protect his sister Svanhild and planned to inherit his family's land when he comes of age. But when the captain of his ship tries to kill him on the way home from a raiding excursion, he must confront his stepfather's betrayal, and find a way to protect his birthright. It is no easy feat in Viking-Age Norway, where a hundred petty rulers kill over parcels of land, and a prophesied high king is rising.
But where Ragnvald is expected to bleed, and even die, for his honour, Svanhild is simply expected to marry well. It's not a fate she relishes, and when the chance to leave her stepfather's cruelty comes at the hand of her brother's arch-rival, Svanhild is forced to make the ultimate choice: family or freedom.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
In the spirit of all that is romantic, I bring you a book review about a grisly viking YA.
Haha, okay, not that grisly. And there is a romantic plot line that is sort of epic and sweet. The Half-Drowned King tells the story of Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanheld. The two are being raised by their greedy stepfather on the land that once belonged to their grandfather, a king. Olaf, the stepfather, has no intention of letting Ragnvald inherit the land, so he contracts a petty king to have him murdered. When the assassin – the king’s favored son, Solvi – fails to kill Ragnvald, the maimed young Viking sets off on revenge for those who have wronged him.
This book encompasses the atmosphere of being a viking. It glimpses different parts of society – from household management to lawgiving to civil wars – without becoming too tedious. It is historical fiction, so of course there are moments that wouldn’t exist in a contemporary novel. For example, there is a lot of pride in being married off to someone (as long as it’s the right someone) and bearing children. Something like this isn’t going to fly with feminist readers BUT it’s really quite accurate in what we understand of the time period. As a historian, I appreciated that feeling of accuracy, but if you’re here for fierce characters like Sky in the Deep, you’re not going to find them.
A lot of what we understand about vikings in popular culture is incorrect. They were a fairy civilized group of marauders, they were just very culturally different that other developing societies of the time period. Because they did not have a uniting ruler, the petty kings spent a lot of time trying to expand their individual landholdings. While, yes, they tended to plunder other developing societies, how is that different, really, than what later western Europeans did to the indigenous peoples? History is writing by the conquerers, mes chers. This novel shows the vikings in about as true a historical light as you’re going to find in fiction. If vikings are something you’re interested in, but you don’t want to crack open a textbooks, The Half-Drowned King is a great novel to start with. Even many of the characters are steeped in fact.
Let’s start with Ragnvald. It would not be a stretch to assume that Ragnvald Eysteinsson is based on Ragnvald Heidumhære, one of the petty kings of the 9th century. While sources indicate that Ragnvald’s father was Olaf Geirstad-Alf, he is the step-father in The Half-Drowned King. There’s poetry attributed to Heidumhære, which lines up with the feats Hartsuyker mentions in the novel. Then there’s Harald Fairhair, who is definitely a character out of history. Young King Harald sets off to unite all of Norway under him as a fair and just ruler, and (spoiler alert) that’s precisely what he does historically. The women are less historically inspired, but just as accurate (as far as I can tell) in their motivations. I love Svanheld’s storyline. Where Ragnvald is predictable and, well, petty, Svanheld knows her own mind and is obstinate and brave and fantastic. Her love story is, ultimately, the one I enjoyed. Although, Ragnvald has a promised wife and I’d like to see more of Hilda – I liked the little we saw of her.
Story-wise, The Half-Drowned King is a bit overly long and draggy. It feels like Linnea Hartsuyker has gone out of her way to make this story about something over than viking pillages, and so the potential action is saved for the end of the novel. Even then, it’s not super exciting? But I think that the lack of ups and downs here would bore some people. This book flourishes in the hands of someone who loves history (me!) but could be a chore for those who are looking for a fast-paced read.
Still, all that said, I’d still recommend giving it a go. It’s a fantastic piece of YA historical fiction with interesting characters and a world rarely explored (accurately). I enjoyed Hartsuyker’s writing style, though I thought the narrator could be a bit dull at times. You’ve got a little bit of war, a few duels, a love story, and a revenge plot – really, what more could you ask for?