I love a good work of hard-hitting historical fiction, and it doesn't get much better than a viking saga!
The best example is The Long Ship by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson - it's probably the oldest, most famous, and (for me at least) the bench mark against which all others are measured.
Before we talk about the story - volume one in a trilogy to come, let's go over what we know about the author...
- She spent her childhood in Ithica (US) living on the edges of a large forest
- She has qualifications in Creative Writing, and Material Science and Engineering
- She traces her own lineage back to Harald Fairhair (Harfagr - the first King of Norway)
- She enjoys a life of travel, food & competes in Strong-Woman events
Fair to say then that she's got the background to deliver some knowledgeable and interesting stories and I'm very pleased to say that this first installment of her trilogy is richly layered with culture, has plenty of grit and action, and keeps decent pace while outlining the lives of the people of ancient Norway.
The story is centred around a brother and sister, Ragnvald and Svanhild, as they negotiate the brutal realities of life in times of upheaval and uncertainty.
Ragnvald has been betrayed and left for dead by an assassination attempt orchestrated by his step-father and embarks on the slow road of obtaining a satisfying vengeance - all the while trying to ingratiate himself into the fold and remain useful to the young man who would be King of a united Norway, Harald Fairhair.
Meanwhile Svanhild has her own worries. Suffering abuses at the hands of the stepfather who wants her out of the way, he tries to marry her off to a local Jarl. But hearing of Ragnvald's survival she is desperate to be reunited with her brother and protector so flees to find him - her story takes some interesting turns, none of which I will write about as I'd prefer you read the book, but suffice to say life unfolds in unusual and unexpected ways for all of us and Svanhild's story is equal parts light and dark.
The most impressive aspect of this book is the way in which the author describes events and drives the plot by placing events into cultural context. A great example of this is after Ragnvalds survival and recuperation from his "near-death experience". His plan to seek revenge entails arriving at the annual ting, a yearly gathering of the Kings and Jarls of Norway, and following the traditional route of challenging his rival to either a formal duel or recompense in front of witnesses and within their framework of honour - not your usual story of confrontation, and clever writing makes this an engaging device that carries the plot along nicely.
The action scenes are brutal, blood, and injuries occur to significant characters - there's nothing worse than a lead character who is seemingly immune to everything that befalls everyone else! There is an amount of battle tactics but it's not overly done, and the common folk are never forgotten.
She is also very good at her descriptions of place, giving the reader a good sense of the landscape, environment, and weather conditions, and how these affect the character, the plot, and the action.
Also, by centring the story on a young man and a young woman the author is able to demonstrate the cultural expectations, limitations, and values of young people living in that environment and under those circumstances. It gives great depth and width to the story and provides a broader avenue of access for readers while giving a greater cultural context to the times.
So with strong characters, a beaut story of revenge, lots of well described battle-action & an amazing sense of place, this book ticks a lot of boxes and stacks right up against The Long Ships!
If you are a fan of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction and are drawn to stories by Giles Kristian, Bernard Cornwell, or even George R. R. Martin, then give this series a go, you should not be disappointed!
The Half Drowned King
by Linnea Hartsuyker
Published by Hachette New Zealand
Want more hard-hitting historical fiction recommendations? Try my Historical Fiction of the masses list