Alright, you know how sometimes your brain does weird things and gets you all confused? Well, that happened to me with this book so hard. When I first read a description of it, I was like, “Yes! This sounds amazing and I want to read it!” And then, somehow, I got this book and The Marsh King’s Daughter mixed up. So I knew I wanted to read the book, or I thought I did, but every time I considered it, I looked up The Marsh King’s Daughter, which I’m sure is a wonderful book, but thriller/suspense is not really my genre, and I could not for the life of me figure out why I wanted to read it in the first place! This book-brain-scramble has been going on for at least 2 years now and I actively can think of 3 different instances where I made this mistake! Haha. Anyways, I finallyyyyyy got this figured out when I was browsing what audiobook to listen to next on my Hoopla app and this (correct) title popped up and I was like “Wait? What? OMG I AM KINDA DUMB!” And immediately checked it out and downloaded it, because I felt like I owed it to this poor overlooked book to read it as soon as possible.
This is an historical fiction piece about the beginning of Norway as we know it today. Young Harald is a Norse warrior whose mother has had a vision that he will be the first King to unite all of Norway’s fighting factions and lesser kings/jarls (lords) into a single country. (Crazy cool side note, the author can trace her own family’s lineage back to this Harald – how awesome is that?!) Anyways, our main characters are brother and sister Ragnvald and Svanhild, everyday “players” in this greater story, but holding positions with enough connections to make them fascinating narrators of the events, as seen from both the inside and from an observer’s perspective. Ragnvald is a Norse warrior who has the goal of retaking his family’s land from his stepfather, Olaf, while Svanhild wants to be able to make her own choices as far as husband and lifestyle, which is not common for women of the time period. When Ragnvald has a vision that changes his life’s course by making him one of Harald’s followers, while Svanhild makes a difficult decision to “escape” her life into the arms of Solvi, Ragnvald’s sworn enemy, their stories and fates intertwine with the important events that shape the course of Norway’s history and formation.
Wow. This is historical fiction at it’s best, in my opinion. I was immediately drawn into the story by the depth of historical detail Hartsuyker infuses onto every page. It’s so very clear that she’s done her research on the time period, because the day to day action, from trade to war to farming to family matters, the belief systems and celebrations, the importance of honor/role and the way that affects interpersonal interactions, the system of seasonal raiding, the system of swearing loyalty to the small kings/jarls, and all the rest of highlighted traditions and occurrences was so thorough. I was fascinated by the dynamics between and among all the players in this tale, the subtle shifts of power and the politics of every interaction. It was intricate and intense and rendered in such a comprehensible way, which I’m sure was a challenge for the author, who had to take many years of history, many more historical figures, and myriad sources and compile it all into an understandable and incredibly palatable tale for public consumption. A challenge she met squarely, at least in my opinion.
I know one of the biggest complaints that I’ve seen in reviews is in regards to the pacing of the story. And I get that. The description of the novel makes it sound like it’s all big battles and high drama. And there is that, at times…but I also can see how people might be expecting more of it than there actually was. (Thanks, Game of Thrones, for making every actual historical tale seem “boring” in the wake of your never-ending and slightly ridiculous levels of drama.) So be prepared for this novel to not be a roller coaster of violence and incest and back-stabbing and rape (though do be prepared for at least a little bit of all of that). But overall, no, this is more of a (dare I say?) period piece. The setting and the culture share center stage. While of course Harald’s rise to power, and the excitement of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s lives, are focal and vividly realistic and shape the story-telling of the book, it’s more than just a pedal-to-the-metal novel of plot. And personally, I loved that. I felt like I truly learned about the beauty and richness and history of Norway, while also being entertained (instead of only being entertained). That’s a case of individual preference, which is why I’m “warning” about it here, but for me, it really worked. *As a small side-note, the audiobook narrator does a great job, though his voice is very soothing, so don’t listen to this one when you’re tired because he’ll lull you right to sleep.*
Character-wise, I felt like they were all written true to the time period, which is all one could ask for, truly. But their greater goals and honor sort of obscure the people they are underneath. As time went by, I started to get a feeling for each of the main players a little, but they are still very much pawns to the greater story/time/place than anything else. I felt like it was ok, given the context, but if you are in great characters development/arcs, be aware that this book may not be that. Relatedly, I’d like to say that I did love Svanhild, even though she was more of an archetype than anything else (again, reasonable in the context, this is and reads like a long version of an old-school spoken epic, so that fits), because I can always get behind a strong-willed, action-based female character, especially one that still shows signs of humanity, like crying or being unsure. Get it, Svanhild!
I just found out that this novel is the first in a longer series, the most recent of which was just published, and I’m now very excited. For one, this one ended in a very wonderful way (no heart-stopping cliff-hangers, thank goodness), but there is definitely more to the story! Not-really-spoiler alert, Harald is not yet king of all Norway by the end, haha, so we know there has to be more. I’m content with where it was left for now, and I’m going to read some other books in the meantime, but I also know that I’ll be back to read the rest of the series in time. I really enjoyed this chance to learn about a place and time that I had known little about (other than a few random pieces of information from my partner, who is very into Viking culture) and want more.