Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2017

The Half-Drowned King (2017), by Linnea Hartsuyker

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.

As you’d expect in a novel of this type, there are plots and counter plots, and plenty of brutal fights among rival kings and their men.  There are a great many characters to keep track of, but fortunately the author sticks to a chronological narrative, all told in the 3rd person, alternately from Ragnvald’s perspective and then Svanhild’s.  Loyalty is a key issue for both protagonists, and Hartsuyker inverts expectations about the characters by making Svanhild the more adventurous while Ragnvald is more keen to settle on his farm, if only he can retrieve it from the brute Olaf. But he has few assets in this quest: only courage and determination, and a growing capacity to calm the hotheads amongst the rival kings.  In this period of rudimentary politics, it was a man’s personality and capacity for leadership amongst powerful allies that mattered most.

Hartsuyker writes well, recreating the landscape and the social structures with convincing detail and the plots romps along.  She sets up complex personalities with equally complex motives, and they don’t all behave in predictable ways. I doubt if The Half-Drowned King is the next Game of Thrones, but it’s entertaining reading which kept me absorbed to the end.

Author: Linnea Hartsuyker
Title: The Half-Drowned King
Publisher: Little, Brown  (Hachette), 2017
ISBN: 9781408708804
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: The Half-Drowned King


  1. “Svanhild, a spirited individual not willing to submit to the role that custom demands of women.”

    You’re a woman and a feminist: Do you think that authors who back-write independent women into history are white-washing (woman-washing?) history, setting the record straight, or just providing role models for modern women? Or maybe, that novels like this shouldn’t be regarded as having any historical content? – like Regency romances (which I enjoy).


  2. Oooh, tricky question!
    First up, this is not the sort of book that anyone reads for historical accuracy. It’s escapist entertainment so that gives it lots of leeway.
    However, as I think I said in a recent review of a different and not-so-well-written or conceived work of commercial fiction, writing ‘indomitable’ women into the script needs to be done convincingly.
    Because, I have no doubt, there have always been women who objected strongly to the roles they were assigned. I know this because I was one of them in the very early days of feminism when the supportive sisterhood such as it was, was nowhere to be found as far as I was concerned. I had an aunt born in the early C20th who wasn’t willing to do what was expected of her either. Her history is fascinating, and she was one of a number who emerged in the Suffragette era and just did what she wanted to do. In the historical record, you can find similar women who did journalism in WW1 where they were not welcome, or nurses who made their way to the front against orders. In colonial days there were women who ran the pioneer farm in the absence of their husbands. They were small in number but they certainly existed.
    I think there have always been people, not just women, who didn’t fit into whatever was expected of them, and they did the best they could within the constraints of the society they lived in. There were women who feared (or loathed the idea of) marriage and motherhood and they went into nunneries where they could have education, a sort of autonomy, and sometimes even power. A convincing novel will demonstrate an awareness of the constraints and the women subverting them in reasonably convincing ways.
    In this novel, Svanhild is like every other woman, aware of the value of her virginity and also at the mercy of her fertility. The author works with that, not ignoring it.
    At the end of the day, if Elizabeth I hadn’t existed, an historical novelist could have invented her, and not been too far out from a truth that turns out to be true.


    • Thanks for such a comprehensive answer. Of course it is a part of the project of my blog to identify women in Australia’s literature and history who acted/argued outside the confines of marriage. But that makes me wary of writers who put in independence, or other C21st values, where they didn’t exist. However I find it interesting that Phillipa Gregory finds what appears to be genuinely independent women amongst the Tudors in her popular historical fiction. I’m sure there have always been some and that we baby boomers are to some extent blinded as to what went before by the extreme conservatism of the 1950s.


      • Perhaps more so in Australia which gets a bad press for conformity prior to the 70s? Whereas Britain has a long history of making space for eccentrics… and perhaps that’s true in Europe too?


        • The middle classes have always been conformist and in the 1950s the whole of Australia aspired to the middle class. Other countries being more self assured, allowed more leeway.


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