Was sort of uninterested in this book, until I read this blog post by the author. Boom! Sudden interest, give it to me now. And I’m really glad I picked it up. My experience with Hild is the textbook example of why it’s a good idea to read outside your normal genres every once in a while. I don’t read very much historical fiction, and those I do read are usually the ones that have some sort of unusual hook, like TWO SOLDIERS IN WWII RUSSIA LOOK FOR A DOZEN EGGS FOR A WEDDING CAKE! (City of Thieves) or WOMAN TIME TRAVELS TO SCOTLAND AND HAS LOTS OF SEX! (Outlander). In comparison, Hild is rather tame, and MUCH more in depth.
Hild is Nicola Griffith’s examination of the early years of St. Hilda of Whitby, about whom almost nothing is known, except that she was probably one of the most influential women who ever lived. (Really, you should click that link at the top — it’s very interesting.) Griffith became obsessed with St. Hilda after visiting the ruined abbey where St. Hilda once lived, did a shit-ton of research into the middle ages and how women lived, and then decided to write this book. And her decision to not ignore the realities of women’s lives back then, which mostly featured around raising children and weaving, was a brave one. I mean, women did nothing back then, how could a book like that possibly be interesting?
It helps that our protagonist is not just any woman, but the niece of the King, and daughter of the man who should have been king, had he not been poisoned. And that Hild’s mother prophesied before she was even born that she would be “the light of the world,” a prophecy that her mother works hard to make come true, and which Hild herself fulfills not by any mystical means, but by being observant and clever and using common sense. She becomes the King’s seer, predicting events and advising him before she even has her first period. She is instrumental, in Griffith’s version of the story, in shaping her world even as young as the age of seven.
The book follows her from the age of three, when she learns her father has died and has to immediately seek the succor of his brother (who probably was the one who had him killed) for protection, all the while fearing he might see them as a threat. Due to her precarious position, she also seeks to learn how to defend herself with the help of her half-brother Cian (a character Griffith created), a gesith (knight) in the King’s court. Cian’s position is similarly precarious. He believes he is the bastard son of one king, Ceredig, a lie his mother and Hild’s mother let him believe to protect him. If Edwin King knew Cian was really the son of his late brother, he would likely see him as a threat and have him killed. As a result, Cian and Hild’s relationship becomes rather complicated. Anyway, he teaches her to wield a staff, and to properly fight with her seax (a gift from another King), because it was expressly forbidden for women to learn to fight with a sword. So Hild held a position few men, let alone women, ever held: king’s advisor, seer, warrior, landowner, with the freedom to speak as she pleased to men of authority.
God, there’s so much in this book I still want to talk about. How Griffith treats class, and the intermingling of the different races (Wealh (British), Anglo-Saxon, Franks, etc.). How Hild, a speaker of multiple languages, acts as a bridge for all these different peoples. How the whole book is a sneaky exploration of how the coming of Christianity to Britain changed the political and cultural landscape. The way she treats gender and sexuality (which was much more fluid back then, before the coming of Christianity). How she works all of this subtly into a book-long metaphor about women and weaving and family and friendship, and knitting things together. UGH SO GOOD.
This is a long book, but it’s worth it for the feeling you have almost immediately that you’re the one who’s time-traveled, back to the 7th century in England, before England was even a thing. It’s almost unbelievable how Nicola Griffith is able to create such an intense, detailed world inhabited by real people out of the bare scraps of historical record, but then again, I suppose a science fiction author is inherently suited to this kind of work — worldbuilding is kind of in the job description. This time, the world she’s created just so happens to have once been real. This book probably isn’t for readers who demand lots of fast-paced action and plot. It’s a leisurely one that demands you pay attention to it, that you bask in the words and the atmosphere they create, that you linger over them with your thoughts. That you spend actual time with these characters, and get to know and love them. If you’re not a reader who can put that much mental effort into reading, don’t bother with this one. And please, if you do, don’t blame the book if you have a bad experience.
Griffith’s afterword makes it clear she’s not done with Hild’s story, and she’s currently working on a sequel that will take us into Hild’s adult life, where she will have to do much less guesswork, as Hild’s life from that point is part of the historical record.
Make sure to check out these reviews also, because as always with books that I really love, my own words feel inadequate: