The Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker’s debut novel from HarperCollins, is neither fantasy nor science fiction. Well, it might edge its way into fantasy, if one counts a single drowning vision as a fantastical element, but really, there are no witches or dragons or real draugr here, only kings and battles, marriages and terrible life choices.
The Half-Drowned King is historical fiction, set in Norway during the early years—and early campaigns—of Harald Fair-hair, whom later history remembers as the first king of Norway. (Much of Harald’s life and reign is contested historical territory: there are no contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of his life.) Hartsuyker chooses not to focus on Harald himself, but instead on two siblings from a coastal farm, Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanhild.
Ragnvald Eysteinsson’s grandfather was a regional king, but his father died young and the family’s fortunes have much diminished. Ragnvald has always believed his stepfather Olaf is holding his father’s land in trust for him and will turn it over to him once he comes properly of age. But as he’s returning from a Viking raid to Ireland, he’s betrayed and left for dead by his captain, Solvi, who’s the son of a powerful local king. Solvi stabbed him and threw him overboard at Olaf’s request. Ragnvald wants revenge, honour, and his land back—he wants to be a king. He finds a path to honour and recognition in service to a powerful regional king, Hakon, who is allied with Harald. But Ragnvald finds himself drawn to serve the charismatic boy-king, not the king to whom he swore his oath, and when he’s caught between Hakon and Harald, he can’t please either of them.
Meanwhile, Svanhild is expected to be quiet and amenable and make an appropriate marriage. (She’s not really keen on marrying a man twice or three times her age who’s already buried several wives. But that’s the one that the men in her life keep trying to push her into.) She finds herself attracted to young, handsome, successful-warrior Solvi before she knows who he is. She knows Solvi’s responsible for almost murdering her brother, though, and when she realises who he is, this is something of a problem. Unfortunately, Solvi’s just a little obsessed with her. But eventually, after being put in an impossible situation (or three), she chooses to marry him. She ends up choosing loyalty to him over loyalty to her brother, just as Solvi chooses loyalty to her over loyalty to the military success of his cause.
While Solvi and his father oppose Harald’s plan to unify Norway—eventually charging it taxes and building towns—Ragnvald is Harald’s partisan. When he hears that Solvi, his enemy, has married his sister, he cannot understand it and blames Svanhild for shaming him.
(This is mildly interesting, because according to the sagas, Svanhild daughter of Eysteinn is the mother of at least two of Harald’s sons.)
When it comes to setting, I’m far from a Norse specialist, but The Half-Drowned King feels like solid historical fantasy. Its physicality works, though Hartsuyker feels much more interested in the masculine world of battles and kings than the traditionally feminine one of weaving and children. Although it tries to interrogate issues of womanhood, marriage, power and autonomy, it largely falls short.
Look, The Half-Drowned King isn’t a bad book. But, reading it, I found myself comparing it to Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a novel similarly set in pre-medieval times. Hild is set in England, rather than Norway, and focuses on two siblings across a year or so rather than a single person across more than a decade. But it is similarly interested in politics and personal relationships in a period of social and political change, and in questions of power, honour, and autonomy.
The Half-Drowned King comes off poorly in comparison. Ragnvald and Svanhild seem to make decisions based on short-term gratification of their pride and the idea that they are more right and better people than anyone around them. Hartsuyker isn’t interested in the lives and experiences of thralls or of captives who might intersect with her main protagonists (in contrast to Griffith’s Hild), and while there are other women in Svanhild’s life, she has no real emotional connection with any of them. She has no female friends, not really: no one who makes an impression. While Ragnvald is annoyingly inconsistent: he veers from obtuse to perceptive and back again for no good reason.
The Half-Drowned King is entertaining and vivid, but it lacks depth and the kind of characterisation that makes me really invest in a novel. I’m picky. I want more interest in people who aren’t aristocrats. For me, it proved a disappointment: but if you like Norwegian Vikings making terrible life choices, it may be just your cup of tea.
The Half-Drowned King is available from HarperCollins.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign