I wholeheartedly loved this book, but it took me about 100 pages to fall in love. The first bit was a slog–the names are a mouthful and many of them are very similar to each other, we’re thrown right into the plot, and I kept feeling like I was missing important things. (And I probably was…it didn’t help that in the Kindle version, the glossary and the map are way in the back and it’s impossible to go there without losing your place.) I don’t know whether I had to get used to the style or whether Griffith just found her footing, but at about a quarter of the way through, this book grabbed me and proceeded to keep me up way past my bedtime many nights in a row.
It’s 7th century Britain. Hild’s father has been killed. Her mother is maneuvering into Hild’s uncle’s kingdom, trying to moor her children to power, and using all her wiles to do so. When she was pregnant with Hild, she dreamed that this child would be “the light of the world”–a prophet, a seer, a guide, blessed. From birth, she grooms Hild into this foretold role, nurturing her preternaturally insightful personality, teaching her the relationship between information and power, and encouraging her to observe everything around her. At a young, young age, Hild becomes the king’s seer. But this is a time of turmoil–kings are warring, and Christianity is replacing the pagan religions, sometimes violently. As the king’s seer, Hild must navigate these troubled times with insight, manipulation, observation, charm, political savvy, and, sometimes plain common sense.
Later, Hild will become St. Hilda of Whitby, Christian saint. This is Griffith’s imagining of how that came to be–how did this orphaned little girl grow up into a famous sword-wielding Christian saint, adviser to kings? (This book doesn’t take us that far–it stops in her teenage years.)
This is a book to settle into. Griffith’s writing is gorgeous, but formidable. It is not a light read, and it won’t make you laugh. And Griffith is a master of showing rather than telling–there were many sections I went back to re-read just to make sure I was picking up what she meant me to understand. There were many more sections I re-read just because they were so beautifully written.
One thing Griffith does expertly is show how entwined everyone’s lives were to their environment: their success and happiness so often depended on the land, the weather, and the fate–or whims–of their king, in a way that we modern readers simply don’t experience. The sections where Hild reads the land, makes an (accurate) prediction, and advises the king accordingly, are some of the most enjoyable for me to read. And the similar sections where Hild reads a person and makes an educated guess–I mean, prophecy–about their behavior are equally engrossing. The characters are different, compelling, and deep. The landscape is described in loving, meticulous detail. All in all: exactly what I want in my historical fiction, and then some.
Despite Griffith’s excellent writing, there were many times it felt overburdened with historical detail–that is, sometimes the details didn’t seem to serve the plot as much as communicate the fact that the author really, really did lots of research. Usually the details enriched the story, but sometimes they were plain cumbersome. Like I said, those first 100 pages, I was floundering. (Maybe I’m just slow, though?) And there were many instances when she’d reference a person we’d only met in passing, three hundred or so pages previously, without providing any background to jog our memories–again, not at all a deal-breaker, but it was annoying to be reading along and then have to stop to try to remember who this character is and why we should care about him.
Rating: 5/5. I would usually take off a star for these quibbles, but in this case I just couldn’t–I enjoyed this book too much to give it less than five stars. Days later, I’m still turning Hild over in my mind. I hope the next installment comes soon!
(For more on the background of the real Hild: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6277397-about-the-real-hild)