Hild

by Nicola Griffith

Cover image

Series: Hild #1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 0-374-28087-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 539

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Hild was born in seventh-century Britain, daughter of Hereric (would-be king of Daria) and Breguswith. Born, her mother said, to be a light to the land. This much is documented by the Venerable Bede, in The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, along with Hild's later rise to become one of the most powerful abbesses in British history. But nearly all of Hild's early life is a cipher.

Hild fills in some of that gap with fiction. Specifically, it takes Hild from a child of three, learning her father has been killed, to a young woman, an advisor of Edwin king. It's a coming of age story in part, following her maturation both physically and mentally, her training in when to speak and how, and the dangers of being close to royalty in a fractious, political, and war-torn land. It's also the story of endless maneuvering and care, initially by her mother Breguswith and then by Hild herself — sometimes in opposition to her mother, sometimes in alliance — as her mother attempts to make a safe place for her daughter and herself in a treacherous court of shifting dangers.

But Hild is also a story about Britain. It's a novel about how it felt and how it sounded. How it was organized, primarily among the high-born but with snippets of perspective from the lower classes. And it's a story about women: about weaving, about medicine, about friendships and partnerships and alliances among women, about the politics of marriage and childbirth, but also about the places women held and made in a time when surviving official history is all about the men. Hild is a painstakingly-researched, sprawling, lush, and sensual immersion in a part of history that gets little formal attention: after the Romans, before what we think of as medieval, before England as a country.

I've been waiting for a new Nicola Griffith novel for quite a while, since Always in 2007. Hild doesn't disappoint, but it's also different than Griffith's previous writing. It has less of the strong narrative drive and clarity of either her SF or Aud Torvingen stories. Instead, the goal of Hild is to immerse and transport you, to help you feel the shape of Hild's world, to understand her days and tasks, her dreams and dangers.

Like all of Griffith's work, it's beautifully written. Griffith puts description at the fore, in the sharp eyes of an observant girl who loves the outdoors, and who has been taught to watch for signs of weather and tools of healing. From early on, Hild's mother sets her up as a seer and prophetess as a way of establishing her value to war leaders and kings, and while some of it is drama and cryptic words, so much of it is careful observation, networks of information-gathering, and sharp deduction about the motives and politics of surrounding kings. Hild is very good at what she does because she has a sharp, quick mind that has been carefully trained, and because she has the aid of her mother's networks and then aid in building her own. Griffith does a wonderful job showing the reader what Hild sees, how she appreciates the world both for its own beauty and for the information she can gather from it, and how to build influence by navigating tense and dangerous moments: waiting for just the right moment and the right word, and taking sudden, impulsive risks and accepting their consequences.

Unfortunately for me, this setting is also rich in complex politics and numerous actors, with older and unfamiliar names, and I got lost. Constantly. That's the drawback to immersion: Griffith doesn't hold the reader's hand. We get Hild's thoughts and analysis, and the reader has to keep up. Sometimes I did; sometimes I didn't. There's a dizzying flurry of names here, both personal and place, and while there is a map and a single family tree, neither helped me as much as I wanted them to. At several points, I found myself skimming through the latest shift in the balance between various petty kings because, while I knew I'd seen all the names before, they had come adrift from their context in the story.

That was my major frustration with this book. It was all interesting enough that I would have kept thumbing back to a detailed dramatis personae, and indeed I kept checking the family tree, but there just wasn't enough detail there. Even better would have been a brief factual history of the political and military conflicts Hild was living through, keyed by chapter. Hild is startlingly intelligent, leaping from insight to insight, which is wonderful for building character, but which occasionally leaves the reader scrambling to catch up with the connections between her thoughts. I felt like, had I the broader context, I could have understood her insight more readily. All this information is likely available, since Griffith is playing off of documented history, but I'm not the sort of reader who likes doing Internet research while engrossed in a book.

So, that's the downside, at least for me. But this book has many strengths, even if you're lost much of the time. Hild as written by Griffith is a fascinating character, full of sharp edges and difficult moods and a powerful belief in what she feels is right. Griffith is at the height of her writing ability when describing Hild making hard choices and taking on burdens that seem too large for her to bear. There are two sections of the book, where Hild is forced by circumstances to lead men in violence, that I think are two of the best bits of writing Griffith has ever published — not just because of those scenes themselves, but because of the aftermath, the lingering echos, the way that they shape and inform everything Hild does afterwards. The mingling of reward and loss, maturation and trauma, the sense that the world has shifted both inside and out and it's nearly impossible to say whether the change is for the better or worse.

Griffith also knows when not to say too much, and while I found that frustrating for the politics, it does wonders for the characters. Hild's complex and fraught relationship with Gwaldus is the best example. We never know exactly what Gwaldus is thinking; Hild can only guess, and at times one is fairly sure that she guesses wrong. But that doesn't lead to sudden revelations, where the characters finally understand each other. Instead, they both adjust, they maneuver around each other, they find space and understanding where they can, and sometimes they just close off. This book is full of relationships like this: loves that are too complicated for words, bonds that are too dangerous to acknowledge, and characters who can't relax even though they wish the best for each other. At times, it's exhausting reading, but it gives Hild a tension that one wouldn't expect from a sprawling novel full of description and scene-building.

Hild is clearly the first book of a series, and leaves quite a lot unresolved. If you want closure in relationships and in politics, there's a lot here that you may find frustrating. And if, like me, you struggle to keep names and politics straight, you're probably going to get lost. But it's well worth the effort for the description, for Hild's thought processes, and for a few haunting scenes that I will be replaying in my head for a very long time. Expect to take your time with this, and wait until you're in the mood for immersion and puzzling out context as you go, but recommended. I suspect it would be even better on a second reading.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-05-31

Last modified and spun 2015-06-01