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The Half-Drowned King: A Novel by Linnea…
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The Half-Drowned King: A Novel

by Linnea Hartsuyker

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The Half-Drowned King is one of the books I recently enjoyed for bedtime relaxation while reading more challenging books by day. It’s the first of what will apparently be a trilogy: a saga of 9th century Norwegian kings during the period of unification. According to the author’s note at the end of the book, it was ‘inspired by’ the saga of Harald Fairhair in the Heimskingla of the Icelandic historian and poet, Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241). Sturluson’s saga was written from oral sources ca. 1230 and isn’t considered entirely reliable about centuries much earlier, so an author has plenty of scope for invention…
The novel is a big. chunky book of 400+ pages, focussing mainly on two protagonists: Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the betrayed true heir to his family’s lands, and his sister Svanhild, a spirited individual not willing to submit to the role that custom demands of women. When the story opens, Ragnvald is returning from successful raids on the coastline but is almost drowned (hence the book title) by Solvi, who has been put up to it by his father King Hunthof who’s in league with Ragnvald’s stepfather Olaf. So Ragnvald starts the novel as a penniless victim who needs to keep out of the way of rivals who would kill him, and Svanhild is about to be married off to a boring old man whose previous wives have all died in childbirth.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/11/05/the-half-drowned-king-by-linnea-hartsuyker/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Nov 5, 2017 |
Novel of 9th century Vikings--what was unusual was showing their life on shore, mostly as farmers, and emphasizing women's lives. The protagonist, Ragnvald, is thrown overboard and is rescued by a fisherman. He has a vision of a "golden wolf" which he later feels is King Harald, who wants to unite and rule all of Norway. Ragnvald wants to kill his stepfather, who has stolen his patrimony. His sister, Svanhild, to escape an unwanted marriage to a much older man, runs away and goes to sea with her husband, archrival of her brother. Novel was interesting, showing another side of Vikings, but nothing special. This was the first in a projected trilogy, using one of the old sagas as a starting point. ( )
  janerawoof | Oct 4, 2017 |
This historical fiction work (first in a planned trilogy) takes place in ninth-century Norway. The author points out in a note at the end of the book that her own work was inspired by a saga written in the 13th Century about this period. She took the basic outlines and expanded them with her imagination. She cautions readers however not to look up the stories in Wikipedia in order to avoid spoilers for future books.

I enjoyed the book, but not as much as I had hoped. My main problem was with its hero, twenty-year-old Ragnvald, the “half-drowned king.” In addition to exhibiting the same unsavory characteristics of most of the other men in this story, such as the lack of respect for, and egregious treatment of, women, Ragnvald is also a total jerk in general. His sworn enemy Solvi, on the other hand, who is the chosen mate of his sister Svanhild, is not without fault but seems charming and considerate by comparison. But alas, Solvi is only a side character.

Ragnvald’s fate, it seems to him - thanks to a vision he had while almost drowning - is to serve Harald, who is still 16 in this book, and who is trying, with the help of his Uncle Guthorm, one of many local kings in the area, to unite Norway under his rule. Harald’s mother, Ronhild, is a reputed sorceress who had the conveniently self-serving vision that her son would be king of all Norse lands. The populace is superstitious enough to put great weight in such predictions.

The story proceeds through a series of battles on both land and sea as local kings support different factions amassing for and against Harald.

Discussion: There is a certain lack of historical depth to the story. Except for the fact that resolving affronts to honor or ambition was done by actual killing of one another, I didn’t get much of a feel for the times. A bunch of men trying to outdo one another in an arena perceived as “manly” could be anywhere, at any time. In addition, there are many slaves in this story who are identified only as “thralls,” the women of the group primarily serving as sexual outlets for the men, and the men as worker bees. Otherwise, they are totally faceless. This seems like socially sanctioned exploitation and rape on a mass scale; how did this come about and how did the victims feel about it? The author doesn’t tell us; her main focus is on the bratty boys and bitter men at the top of the food chain.

Thank heavens for Svanhild, age 15, who plays a strong supporting role in the story. She is determined not to marry an older man she doesn’t love solely to satisfy her stepfather. She longs to participate in adventures at sea instead of being stuck with stereotypical female roles. She’s smarter than her years, resourceful, and way more mature than her older brother. She makes the book worth reading, and this series worth following.

Evaluation: In spite of my dislike of the main (male) character, I was very much taken with the main female character, and plan to continue with the series. ( )
  nbmars | Oct 2, 2017 |
When I read the description for this book my first thought was “Gimme!”, for a couple of reasons. I’ve done a lot of family genealogical research & was intrigued to find that some of my dodgy ancestors began life in Norway before taking a wrong turn & landing on the shores of Scotland in the 15th century. Men…just will not ask for directions. But suddenly I understood why I’ve always wanted a helmet with horns. It’s genetic.

The other thing that caught my eye were comparisons made to “Game of Thrones”, “Vikings” & “Outlander”, 3 epic tales that sweep you off your feet & drop you firmly in the muck & mayhem of the past. More on this later.

In this first of a trilogy, we’re introduced to Ragnvald Eysteinsson & his sister Svanhild. The story begins with Ragnvald aboard a ship that is returning home from a raid. Instead of a warm welcome, someone tries to kill him on orders from his stepfather Olaf. Ragnvald stands to inherit a sizeable inheritance from his deceased father but Olaf has other plans. It’s a pivotal moment that sets in motion everything that follows as Ragnvald seeks to regain his birthright & give Svanhild a better life.

The story is based on sagas of King Harald that were written in the 13th century & it’s obvious the author has done extensive research. Settings are atmospheric & rich in cultural detail. You gain a great sense of how these people lived & what they believed. This is the book’s strong point & what I enjoyed most. Unfortunately, the main characters fared less well. There is something missing that I have trouble putting my finger on…depth or passion…that prevents them from becoming fully fleshed out. My other issue was with pacing. You’d expect a bit of a roller coaster, ranging from the mundane of everyday life to epic battles but oddly enough there’s not much difference between how these are portrayed. Maybe that’s the point. Whether you’re having dinner or engaged in swordplay, it’s all in a day’s work if you’re a viking.

Hence the problem with comparing it to the 3 series above. Because of the bold & colourful characters in those stories, you become deeply invested in their fates & feel a range of emotion that places you firmly in the grip of the narrative. Here, due to the author’s impressive knowledge of period detail, the setting often outshines the characters. I was also hoping for the inclusion of more Norse mythology as it was a significant influence on their belief system but that’s a minor personal quibble.

As always, it comes down to what you look for in a story & there are plenty of readers (and fans of the series mentioned above) who have given this high marks. So if you’re in the mood for some old fashioned raiding, give it a go. The good news is there are 2 more in the works. Oh, and the helmets? Turns out there’s next to no evidence any self respecting viking would’ve been caught dead in one. Great….anyone want to buy a set of horns? ( )
  RowingRabbit | Jul 24, 2017 |
On returning to Norway with Solvi Hunthiofsson’s ships after a season’s raiding in Ireland, Ragnvald Eysteinsson narrowly escapes with his life when Solvi unexpectedly tries to kill him. He later learns that Ragnvald’s stepfather has ordered his murder in order to claim Ragnvald’s birthright, the hall at Ardal and the surrounding lands. Ragnvald becomes sworn to Hakon, king of Halogaland, and performs valuable services to Harald, king of Vestfold, who is being hailed as the king to unite all of Norway under one crown. Meanwhile Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild is dismayed at the prospect of being married off against her will, as she’d rather go adventuring with her brother and exploring new shores, and so she takes her future into her own hands. Will the fates reunite brother and sister, or will they position them on opposite sides in the struggles for power?

This is the first volume in a new trilogy set in Viking-age Scandinavia, written by one of Harald Fairhair’s descendants, and it is being hailed as a Viking Game of Thrones by the publisher’s PR department. Don’t let yourself be taken in by the promise of a ‘literary Viking epic’ – the book falls far short of its potential. The problem with being compared to Game of Thrones is that the book will be compared to Game of Thrones, if you get my meaning, and will fail to reach the standard set by one of the world’s most successful series. Game of Thrones (the TV series, as I’m not familiar with the books) makes for compelling viewing, and I feel myself drawn into the narrative and the characters’ stories sometimes almost against my will: here are master storytellers at work that know how to engage their audience. In contrast, the characters in The Half-Drowned King are pale figures in a colourful yet hostile landscape (with the exception of Solvi); the pace throughout the book’s 420+ pages hardly varies, so that a duel, a battle or a fight with a draugr appears matched in pace to a section describing domestic chores in Ardal’s hall or the legal intricacies of the midsummer gathering; the dialogue is wooden, to say the least; the scope is quite narrow and far from the epic achieved in Game of Thrones; and the narrative is flat in the extreme and almost entirely devoid of the lyrical quality that is associated with Scandinavian hero sagas and skalds’ songs, though there are occasional flashes to remind the reader of what could have been. As one other reviewer has said, we’re told of the songs, but we don’t hear them. Several times throughout the book the author likens the plot to the sagas and songs of the age, and there’s no doubt that she wants this book to be one of them; the truth is that Ragnvald, and to some degree Svanhild too, is being talked up to be a hero of songs by the characters surrounding him but I myself can’t see it, and his rise to prominence and favour has me unconvinced – I’ve been more invested in characters’ fates and developments in works of non-fiction.

Additionally, for a book that’s described as being suitable for readers of ‘historical fiction and epic fantasy’, there are virtually no fantasy elements embedded in the story, with hardly any evidence of Scandinavia’s rich heritage of myths and legends and the creatures found in Norse mythology, like trolls, giants and sprites.

Where Linnea Hartsuyker succeeds is in creating a bygone age in which petty kings struggle for power, where raiding and fighting are not only a way of life but a philosophy, and where women often have to make hard choices, all set in an often harsh and unforgiving climate. Reading about personal struggles and sacrifices, about honour and loyalty among the country of mountains, fjords and dragon ships should have been a thrilling reading experience, but it was anything but, and in the end I wanted to finish the book for all the wrong reasons. Disappointing. Not surprisingly I won’t bother with any of the sequels.

(This review was written for Amazon's Vine programme.) ( )
  passion4reading | Jun 15, 2017 |
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Ragnvald danced on the oars, leaping from one to the next as the crew rowed.
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Anger is a pilot who always steers his ship onto rocks. It is a poor guide. (p. 172)
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Ragnvald helps Harald
to unite all of Norway
amid warring kings.
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"The first installment in a debut trilogy, THE HALF-DROWNED KING tells the compelling story of the political intrigues, battles, and struggles for power that led to the rise of King Harald the Fair-Haired, first king of Norway, seen through the eyes of the young man who became his most trusted warrior and advisor. Conjuring a bloodthirsty, superstitious, and thrilling ancient world (9th century), this debut novel is for fans of Game of Thrones, the Vikings TV series, and Outlander"--… (more)

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