Hild, by Nicola Griffith. Published 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Literary Fiction.
If you've been reading my blog at all for the past, like, five and a half months, you know I've been reading Hild since I got it for Christmas. Now, I don't expect you to spend a whole lot of time thinking about why I do what I do, but maybe you've wondered once or twice, gee, it's taking her a really long time to read this book. Yeah. I dove right in after I unwrapped it; it was the book I wanted the most, what with that gorgeous cover and intriguing premise. Nicola Griffith, a Lambda-award-winning science fiction writer, takes on the story of St. Hilda of Whitby, an abbess and councillor of kings in medieval Britain.
But that all comes later. When we meet her, Hild is a little girl of three, confident and blowzy and bright. "She wasn't frightened. She was three; she had her own shoes."
She'll use those shoes throughout her young life to make her way in the world. Breguswith, her mother and the widow of a poisoned king, puts Hild forth as a seer, the "light of the world," and raises her younger daughter to be a politician and power broker. Hild's sister Hereswith is destined to be a "peaceweaver," to marry to secure an alliance for the new king, Hild's uncle Edwin. By her side through all of her travels is her childhood friend Cian, who starts off as a little boy tumbling through the leaves, sparring, talking, her favorite companion. Hild's path and Cian's will remain parallel as they take different roles in Edwin's court; Hild becomes a mystic and adviser and Cian a gesith or soldier for Edwin- but they will always point towards each other in the end. Or so it seems.
Hild is a book with lots of characters, lots of intricate politics, battles, shifts in power and scheming and plotting. Hilda of Whitby was a central figure in the conversion of Britain to Catholicism and we see glimmers of that here, the rising power of the church as leaders convert for political and material gain. It was sometimes hard for me to keep track even with the map, family tree and vocabulary Griffith offers. The book is extremely dense and immersing; you can't read it in short spells. I had to take at least an hour at a time to read it and it's not always easy to find that much time- one reason it took me almost six months to finish it. But Griffith puts you right there, right in the thick of it, with her deeply descriptive writing, characters that feel like flesh and blood and extensive plumping and embellishing of the setting. You will experience the daily life of the seventh century, from food to clothing to cleaning to all kinds of daily rituals. No aspect of life is left unexplored and the book is a feast for the imagination and the senses.
What I loved most about Hild is the relationships between the characters, particularly Hild and Cian's diverging friendship. I really felt her frustration and helplessness as they grew apart, as Cian's sexuality developed and lead him away from his childhood friend. But Hild also lives in a world of women and Griffith populates her life with amazing female friends, like her confidante and "gemaccae" Begu, Hild's servant Gwladus and the queen Aethelburh, not to mention Breguswith and Hereswith. These women spend their days and nights together, manage households, travel and participate in politics and make up the life of the court. It's so much fun to read about.
So, I really loved Hild. I got lost amid the names and machinations from time to time but Griffith keeps her laser focus on Hild so that I never got bored, never lost sight of this unforgettable central figure. Hild is a must for historical-fiction readers and traditional lit-fic folks and would probably appeal to fantasy readers too- Griffith made her name on the SF side of the aisle and I'm so glad to discover her finally. I wouldn't blame you if you waited for the paperback because it's a big book; you probably don't have long to go anyway but please add Hild to your reading list right away. It's definitely going to show up in my top reads of the year.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.