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546 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2013
Hild is the first in a trilogy that explores the story of Hild, or St. Hilda of Whitby. Little is known about St. Hilda; she was the founding abbess of Whitby monastery in ancient Britain, in the 7th century, where the Synod of Whitby was held. Most of what we know about the real Hild is from the Venerable Bede who provides a relatively contemporary depiction of her as an already mature and powerful woman at the time of the Synod. So, Nicola Griffith is writing a series, of which Hild is the first, that explains how this unusual woman could have become an advisor to kings.
The book opens when Hild is 4 years old. Her father, King Edwin's nephew, has been poisoned in exile. Her mother takes Hild and her older sister, her bodywoman and her bodywoman's son Cian to live in the court of King Edwin, where Hild grows up. A twist is that Cian is actually Hild's half-brother — they share the same father, a fact that Hild's family attempts to keep secret from King Edwin. Throughout the book, Hild is told by her mother that she is "the light of the world" — she is special, and she will be the king's seer. We see Hild's personality and ambitions take shape. But the book ends when Hild is probably in her mid-teens. The second book Menewood is in progress (according to what I've seen on Griffith's blog), but not coming out anytime soon.
Hild challenged me in a number of ways. It is speculative historical fiction that aims to be vividly historically accurate in many details, but incorporates fictional worldbuilding. In addition, it is intended to speculate the steps that led to one woman's destiny; a woman whom very, very little is actually known about. I can see why some people view Hild as SFF or speculative fiction, but also why people (like me) who usually read hard SF or high, magical fantasy would view this as being on the merest fringes of SFF.
The most intriguing question I pondered while reading Hild was "is Hild a self-fulfilling prophecy?" She's been told since she was born that she is special, 'the light of the world', who will be a seer. But she's not actually prophetic. She observes closely, she's insightful, she makes connections, she just happens to be in the right place at the right time to gather information other people don't have — and then use that to her advantage. She is smart. And certainly her temperament, her personality, her desires are unusual. But would she be this way if she wasn't constantly being told she was different? She pulls away from people, and they push her away, because of what they think they know to be true about her. What makes us who we are? What shapes our destinies?
Some of the best moments are when Hild acts against gender roles, such as leading a band of warriors to track down and kill bandits. She's a woman who kills! Men and women are both deeply uncomfortable around her because she doesn't behave like either, an unease that Hild can use to gain power, but which also alienates her further from her community.
The details are slowly, ponderously, thoughtfully built up in the book about how people live. How men behave, how women behave, the endless back-breaking work they do to survive. The cycle of life and war. But a lot of it is what WOMEN are doing – what they do in the home, in the fields, in the work sheds, and how they manipulate the "warp and weft" of family and political alliances. The details should be fascinating, but ultimately fell flat for me most of the time. Why? Because Hild doesn't know or see some of these things. In particular, she is not privy to her mother’s schemes and interests, which is the dominant force that begins the story and puts Hild on the stage where SHE can begin to influence the world too.
So while Hild is built up out of fine layers, studded with names and places, it's also slow — almost dangerously slow, as it loses momentum in little fits and starts, dipping into boring stretches or just another battle. And it's quite confusing. There's so much going on in the background that isn't explained - just peppered into dialogue with mentions of kings and overkings and heirs and who's allying with whom. The world outside of Hild's immediate concern is very hazy.
I also have one small quibble: It bothers me that nowhere in the actual physical book is it mentioned that Griffith invented the concept of "gemæcce". It's the only major feature of the ancient Britain and Hild's world that Griffith wholly invented. To her credit, of course, it feels very natural and organic and it meshes so believably with all the other elements of this time and culture. However, the term "gemæcce" is presented alongside all other actual terms and their pronunciations as if it is real. I actually thought it was a real thing, until I happened to read a review that pointed out it wasn't, and then I discovered Griffith had a website that explained this. I'm not upset at all that Griffith invented the concept, because it works, but... please acknowledge to the reader who knows nothing about this time that this is a fictional element in the historical fiction. And it doesn't help matters that Griffith points out how intensely researched and detailed this book is, which boosts the perception that "gemæcce" was a real thing... Anyway, minor quibble. Much more likely to irritate people who demand 100% historical accuracy in their historical fiction.
Hild was an interesting read, though too slow and drenched in details for my taste. I will certainly pick up the sequel to know more, since I now feel invested in Hild's life and badly want to know what will happen next after the final event in Hild.
As the mist began to dissolve she could see the dark, wet beach. Long-legged birds speared shellfish, and women with sacks collected coal and driftwood, dodging the surf that ran up over the sand like the froth in a milkmaid’s pail. The sky showed as blue as twice-dyed linen. The sea was restless, glinting like napped flint. It, too, would turn blue if the sky stayed clear. (p. 83)For me, these were the most convincing moments in the novel. One feels that the author has seen what she describes and found exactly the right words to convey that experience in language.
An owl, noiseless as a feathered cloud, glided away in the moonlight, a songbird in its left foot. (p. 306)
The music, when it came, with a rush, a gush of voice seeking its note, ripped away her indifference and tore through her as sudden and shocking as snowmelt.My ignorance of seventh-century Britain is total—first there was Egypt, then Greece, then Rome; after the Romans left Britain there was the Norman Conquest; I don’t remember learning anything more than that the era of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came in between. Griffith’s imaginative inhabiting of this period is another aspect of the novel that convinces. The court shifting from place to place, following the seasons; the three-day gales, during which men "pissed in corners...vomited and came back for more mead" (p. 307); the winter hunger (“teeth loosened, belts tightened, tempers frayed” p. 317). Here is her description of some of the work women did:
She forgot the floor. Forgot the queen. She felt hot, then cold, then nothing at all, like a bubble rising through water, then floating, then lifting free.
It was cool music, inhuman, the song stars might sing. Endless, pouring, pure. Were it water, it would turn any bird that drank it white. (p. 198)
It was a constant, endless river of work just to make the clothes for a household—cloaks and tunics, shirts and hose, veils and dresses and underdresses and hoods and caps—in addition to blankets, wall hangings, bandages, sacks, saddle cloths, wipes, shrouds, breech cloths. And now [Hild’s mother] Breguswith wanted enough fine wool…to weave cloaks of the size, quality, and quantity to trade for precious goods from the Franks: jessamine, myrrh, poppy paste, garnets, gold, walnut and olive oil, silk. (pp. 383-84)Enjoined to have a “quiet mouth, bright mind,” such are Hild’s powers of observation—of both the natural world, and the human—that she understands what others do not, and thus is valued as a seer. She must watch out for “rivalry, the disease of kings,” “righteous anger, the disease of bishops,” and “the stink of fear, the disease of seers.” (p. 340)