Ragnvald looked up to Solvi the Sea King. The band of warriors was almost home to Norway after viking in Ireland, and Ragnvald foresaw himself spending a lifetime as one of Solvi’s captains, reclaiming his family land, and starting a family of many sons along with his betrothed, Hilda. When Solvi threw Ragnvald overboard and cut his face with a dagger, the shock of betrayal almost outweighed the pain of the knife and the deathly cold of the fjord.
Svanhild waited at home for the return of her dearest brother. Soon Ragnvald would find her a good husband and release her from the bondage of living with her brutish stepfather, Olaf, and his new, favored wife, Vigdis. When the news came of Ragnvald’s death, she had no one to protect her from Olaf’s plan for her marriage to a man who had been the death of many wives.
Filled with frigid landscapes and fierce battles, this fictionalized account of the life of Harald the Fairhaired, the first king of all Norway, rivals ancient sagas in its sweeping scope, and yet, perhaps because of the equal treatment of women’s lives, it opens the chamber doors of small, intimate relationships and domestic dramas. It is all here: family feuds, debts of honor, courage in battle, naked ambition, hidden shame, unexpected romance, and the struggle to transcend the conventions of the past.
Epic sagas have been some of the most memorable works of literature in my life. My medieval literature professor suggested that I learn ancient Icelandic so that I could read the sagas in the original. Even when I was 19 years old, I knew that life was too short for that. Besides, The Lord of the Rings was in English already, so I knew it was possible to have good stories in modern languages. The contemporary appetite for sagas seems enormous, if the spectacular success of The Game of Thrones is any measure. The Half-Drowned King is not as choked with gore as The Last Kingdom, the recent Netflix adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series The Saxon Stories— which I cannot possibly watch— but it does not stint on battle scenes: on land, on sea, and at the dinner table.
Happily, this novel for adults is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to find out what happens to several of the main characters in the future. As Ms. Hartsuyker warns, if you don’t want to know what happens in the end, don’t research King Harald on Wikipedia. But I couldn’t help myself.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of The Half-Drowned King, which is now available for sale. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.