The Sea Queen
by Linnea Hartsuyker
Harper Collins, 2018
Linnea Hartsuyker follows up her totally winning debut The Half-Drowned King with another meaty, wonderfully readable historical novel set in medieval Norway. The Half-Drowned King concentrated on the story of Ragnar Eysteinsson, a fighting man and brother-in-arms to Norway's King Harald, and The Sea Queen continues his adventures as he takes more and more ambitious gambles Harald's service, despite the personal costs that have been exacted along the way (“You are as cold as one already dead,” a character caustically tells him in this new book, and he himself fears he's “half cold, a creature of shadows and chilly water, only half a feeling man”).
But The Sea Queen also shifts a very satisfying amount of the spotlight to Ragnar's sister Svanhild. She was the stand-out character of The Half-Drowned King, and she's unquestionably the star of The Sea Queen, allied with Ragnar's enemy Solvi Hunthiofsson and experiencing adventures in the wide world by his side.
As she did in the previous book, Hartsuyker once again grounds her fiction in the semi-legendary factoid-soup that is the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson – our author is being the very soul of charity when she allows that the book “almost certainly has gaps and inaccuracies” – and she once again manages that most enviable of all historical fiction tricks: incorporating impeccable research without bogging down the narrative. Readers of these two books are immersed in the lived realities of Svanhild's world, learning its details and fighting its battles right alongside her, as when a formidable widow in Iceland explains the process of staking out a homestead:
“This is the farthest reach of my claim.” Unna showed Svanhild a carved post, almost hidden in the lush grass. “A day's walk all around, stretching up the mountain. This is what you must do: take your whole household, and lead a heifer to pace out the edges of your land. You will walk for as long as you can, while there is still daylight. Mark out the borders as I have done, state your claim at the summer alting meeting, and the land will be yours for your sons to inherit. This land is fertile. As farmwives in Norway stir the ash from their cook fires into their gardens, so did the gods of this place scatter ash from the heavens to make the island bloom.” Unna's voice held a note of motherly pride when she spoke of her land.
The novel builds to a violent, operatic climax during which Svanhild does a good deal more than homestead; by the final pages, she has become that rare creature of historical fiction: a thoroughly believable female action-hero. The Sea Queen tells her story with rousing confidence and carefully-timed intervals of quiet sympathy, at once a thrilling adventure story and a moving portrait of very complicated love. This is an even more accomplished novel than its predecessor and sets the reader keenly on edge for the next volume in the series.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.