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.
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017