Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Over the weekend, I finished the book I was reading, Hild, by Nicola Griffith.

For a quick run-down of the story, I will quote you the Amazon book description:

In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, and she has a glimmering mind and a natural, noble authority. She will become a fascinating woman and one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

But now she has only the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing her surroundings closely and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.

Her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Hild establishes a place for herself at his side as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—unless she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

I’m still not entirely sure what to write about this book. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently.

It’s a fictional historical biography. I bought it at a science fiction and fantasy book shop and that seemed perfectly natural, until halfway through when I realised there are no fantasy elements in the book. The main character, Hild, is viewed as a seer, a prophetess, by those around her, but as we grow with her, we see that her predictions come from her unparalleled gift for observing the world around her, for seeing patterns and following them to their conclusions. She has no sixth sense as such.

Being a biography (sort of), the book doesn’t have the kind of driving plot that is expected in most novels. We follow Hild as she grows into womanhood in a world of early medieval kings and warlords. I did enjoy the experience of reading Hild very much. Nicola Griffith has wonderful use of language and she creates a richly detailed world. I loved learning about 7th century England just as much as I loved learning about Hild.

There was a core group of characters that I came to know and understand as part of Hild’s world, but I did feel overwhelmed by the vast array of secondary characters, all with unfamiliar (and often similar-sounding) names, who wove in and out of the story. Enemies and allies, messengers and priests, soldiers and servants. There were too many of them for me to remember who was who from one chapter to the next. (Particularly since, due to long hours at work, I was reading this book in slivers of five pages at a time.)

I also had difficulty keeping track of the many place-names that were mentioned. Armies marched across the map, the royal court moved from house to house, shifting alliances changed the borders of the kingdoms… I’m familiar with the geography of present-day England, but no matter how many times I googled the map of medieval kingdoms, I couldn’t keep them all straight in my head.

That said, I also rapidly decided I didn’t care. It didn’t matter much to my enjoyment of the book whether I could hold on to the shifting politics. Hild did that for me, and I trusted her. I gave up all need to solve any mysteries ahead of her, and just read for the simple joy of the language and the world-building and the ensemble of core characters.

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to everyone, but I would say that it is an interesting book, well-executed. The end notes implied Nicola Griffith is working on a follow-up book chronicling Hild’s later life, and I look forward to reading that when it comes out.

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