The Norway Trilogy: Book I
This rollicking tale of Viking adventure opens with oar-dancing in the first sentence, which boded very well for the rest of the story. Based on the sagas of Harald Fairhair written by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla in the 13th century, it looks back to the Norway of the late 9th century, a fragmented peninsula of petty kings and ruthless raiders. Focusing on the stories of a brother and sister fighting to realise their destinies, it’s an engaging tale spiced with the beliefs of medieval Scandinavia.
The year is 866 or thereabouts. Twenty-year-old Ragnvald is returning home from a successful raiding season in Ireland in the service of the viking Solvi when, to his horror, he is attacked and thrown overboard. Sinking into the fjord, suspended between life and death, Ragnvald has a vision of the great hall of the sea-goddess Ran, where a golden wolf comes to find him. When he is dragged from the sea by a fisherman, half-drowned, he clings to this vision in his mind. He doesn’t yet understand why Solvi and his men tried to kill him, but he suspects it has something to do with his stepfather Olaf, who shows no sign of giving up the lands he has held in trust for Ragnvald since marrying his mother. Ragnvald will find out who wants him dead, and take revenge; but he will also seek out the golden wolf from his vision, whose fate is to be entwined with his.
Back home on the farm at Ardal, in the district of Sogn, Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild chafes under the daily grind of women’s tasks. She is at an age for marriage, but fears that Olaf will see her given to his friend Thorkell, a middle-aged farmer who has already been through several wives. Svanhild doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife, ground down by spinning and breeding like her mother Ascrida and Olfa’s other wife Vigdis. She can’t forget that her grandfather was King of Sogn and she dreams of a future more suited to that of a heroine from the old songs. When she hears that Solvi has tried to kill her brother, she swears eternal vengeance upon him, but this is an oath that may be harder to keep than she imagines.
Hartsuyker brings to life a whole panorama of medieval Norway, not just the familiar raids and events on ship, but the hard life of farmers on land, scraping a living from the unforgiving soil of a rocky peninsula. She conveys the complex system of allegiance and protection in a land where farmers are constantly at risk from raiders, and a king’s status relies on his ability to protect those who till his land. She notes also the difference between the land kings, who recognise this duty, and the sea-kings, for whom plunder and raids are the only achievements worth having. Yet Norway is a land in flux at this period. A young man has emerged from southeastern Norway, from the region of Vestfold, claiming the title of High King over the whole peninsula. This Harald, not yet twenty, has already become a figure of legend with his fighting prowess and his shining golden hair. He believes he can unite the disparate districts of his homeland into something greater, something stronger than before – but in order to do so, he has to win the support and favour of men who resent the idea of being subordinate to anyone.
There’s a lot to learn in this book – more than originally appears – especially because many of the characters appear in the sagas, and Hartsuyker has used the bones of those old tales to weave her new story. On occasion I felt her characterisation could have been a little more complex – and, with the number of times that Svanhild tossed her hair, I had disturbing flashbacks to The Wheel of Time and Nynaeve’s braid-tugging – but having said that, I was pleased that the central male characters occupied a satisfyingly grey moral spectrum, and Svanhild also became more interesting as time went on and she developed from vain, immature dreamer to confident mature woman.
This book is worth seeking out because it seeks to place the Vikings in the context of their complicated, shape-shifting homeland, and the story unfolds on land more than at sea. It also focuses on a very different kind of Scandinavian hero: not a roistering Viking sea-king, but the land-leader Harald, who can look beyond the next raid to consider the fate of an entire country. I’ll look forward to finding out how his story develops alongside those of Ragnvald and Svanhild later in the series.
I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair and honest review
I’ve used the UK cover to illustrate the post, as this is the one that most of you will encounter, I suppose – but there are three different and very attractive covers designed for other markets in the US, Germany and the Netherlands. I am particularly interested by the way the title shifts between languages, especially because the Dutch version places the book’s focus firmly on Svanhild’s journey as opposed to Ragnvald’s.