Recent Reading: HILD by Nicola Griffith

What a masterpiece.

The child’s world changed late one afternoon, though she didn’t know it. She lay at the edge of the hazel coppice, one cheek pressed to the moss that smelt of worm cast and the last of the sun, listening: to the wind in the elms, rushing away from the day, to the jackdaws changing their calls from “Outward! Outward!” to “Home now! Home!,” to the rustle of the last frightened shrews scuttling under the layers of leaf fall before the owls began their hunt. From far away came the indignant honking of geese as the goosegirl herded them back inside the wattle fence, and the child knew, in the wordless way that three-year-olds reckon time, that soon Onnen would come and find her and Cian and hurry them back.


Okay, HILD is not a fantasy. I don’t think there’s an unambiguous trace of magic anywhere in the thing. For that matter, there’s hardly anything that can be seen as an ambiguous trace of magic. The characters perceive things as omens, sure, but on the other hand, Hild is perfectly ready to interpret an omen in whatever way suits her, or make up a prophecy wholesale if it seems necessary.

Of course historical fiction reads like fantasy; I can see why some readers treated it that way; but, no. Historical.

Hild, today remembered as St Hilda, was born in 614, in Anglo-Saxon England, after her mother had a dream about her unborn child being a jewel that brings light to the land. She was the nice of King Edwin. She was baptized in 627, she left England for Gaul in 647, she was recruited to the church by Bishop Aidan, and she became a powerful advisor to kings and a teacher of five bishops.

I got that from Griffith’s author’s note. This is apparently practically the sum of what we know about the real historical figure of Hild. On this hook, Griffith hung a whole long story. Longer than it looks: despite the book’s length, at the end, Hild hasn’t yet come close to leaving England. I’m thinking the year must have been about 635 at the closing of the book – I think Hild was about 21. That’s a guess, but even if I’m off by a few years, you can see she has a *lot* left in front of her. So this is the first book of a series, which I hadn’t realized when I went in. There’s no cliffhanger, though, so don’t let that stop you if you’re thinking of reading this book. The author’s note indicates that Griffith is working on the next installment, and considering that HILD came out a couple years ago, I hope we will see that on the shelves fairly soon.

Anyway, you may guess that HILD is slow-paced, given that Griffith gives us 560 pp and doesn’t even have Hild on that ship to Gaul yet. This is certainly true. It’s slow and rich and beautiful. I read it slowly, over the course of a week or so, interspersed with lighter books. This is not a novel to gulp down in a couple hours. It would be like trying to swallow the world in a mouthful, because Griffith simply pours Anglo-Saxon England into her story. The landscape, the weather, the crafts, the architecture, the medicines, the constant labor to make cloth, the attitudes of the people – the play of children, the coming of age of girls, the boasting of the gesiths, the uncertain generosity of kings.

And the birds – birds are everywhere in Hild’s world and she reads their movements as though she were reading a book: here comes severe weather, here your enemy is hiding. She takes omens from the birds, too, although for Hild prophecy is more a matter of paying attention and noticing things and keeping track of what’s going on and most of all putting it all together in patterns. And then telling King Edwin about a particular raven or white jay at just the right time and in just the right way to get him to do what she wants. Her primary goal is not power, incidentally, but to protect the people she is close to. It’s something of a trick, because her world is fairly brutal and King Edwin is not trustworthy.

She learned about keeping track of things and recognizing patterns and manipulating kings from her mother, who is ruthlessly manipulative and more than a bit scary. Not a villain, though. There aren’t exactly heroes and villains in this story. Well, the bandits, ugh. But mostly there are just people trying to secure safety for themselves and their children, or stay out of the way of the powerful, or make sure they’re well thought of by their peers. Or seize or keep power, yes, but we can understand and sympathize even with that.

Griffith works in tons of archaic words to help immerse the reader in the world she’s evoking. Aetheling, ceorl, dryhten, ealdorman, gesith – those are ranks of people. Solmanath is February, Hrethmonath is March, Oestremonath is April. The time of year is identifiable from the weather, of course, but the terms are also given in a glossary in the back.

Here we have the wealh, a conquered people who are mostly servants and peasants – that’s the root word for Welsh; the Irish, whom we mostly hear of at a distance; the Loides, who are an important British tribe; and particularly the Anglisc, who mostly rule. We also hear about the redcrests, who built wonderful halls and roads and who are now all gone . . . I’m sure you recognize the Romans from that description. We get a definite feel for the people and their lives. We see their hovels and cottages and grand halls and Woden’s temples and the churches of the new God, Christ. Hild and her mother made a treatment for eye ailments, and we are there. Want to know *all* about wool and making cloth?

Armies of women to separate out the staples, to mix soapwort, urine, and pennyroyal to wash out the grease. Children to lay out the washed wool in the sun to dry, to watch it and turn it and to drive off the birds who liked to steal it. Men to barrel and cart oil and grease to the vills to make the fibre more manageable for the first finger-combing and sorting. Smiths hammering out double-rowed combs and woodworkers shaping wooden handles, for women to comb out wool in the new way, the better way, a comb in each hand. Carpenters to build the stools and tables. Bakers to bake the bread so the wool workers could work. Lathe workers to turn the spindles and distaffs, and everywhere, women and men making spindle whorls and loom weights of clay and lead and stone, of every shape and size and heft.

Using all these words and all this detail helps make the world seem real. Everything about Griffith’s writing makes the world seem real. Which of course it was, once. I bookmarked a ton of pages in case I want to look this stuff up sometime.

The writing is beautiful, but it can be challenging. There are SO many names, and they are a bit hard to keep track of. Now and then I was confused about who someone was or what was going on. A Dramatis Personae section would have been helpful, along with the glossary. However, I’m the sort of reader who will just let details go without being too bothered. The overall story is clear: Hild is growing up and taking power in a very insecure world. She’s trying to weave her influence into prosperity for her people and safety for her kin, in the face of war and the whims of kings and the shifting religions of the time. Griffith has made Hild into an extraordinary person, but then, the historical figure plainly *was* extraordinary. But Griffith has not made Hild into a superwoman. She is very tall and strong for a woman, but the reason she can handle herself in a fight is because of extensive practice and training (with her half-brother, in secret). Hild is intelligent and observant and determined, and interested in everything and everyone, and she puts things together into patterns. That’s what makes her a seer. She also gets lonely and frightened and sad and angry. She’s used to being set apart as a seer, she’s used to being thought a haegtes, a witch. She uses that, but it hurts her. She is loyal and she never lets go of the people she loves – this in a world where once your sister gets married to a man at the other end of the country, you may never see her again. She is a wonderful protagonist; spending time with her is a pleasure. I am definitely looking forward to stepping into the world of HILD again, when the sequel is released. Which I hope will be soon.

General rating: I don’t know, nine out of ten? Nine and a half? Ten? I can see that this novel would not appeal to everyone. But for what it is – slow-paced immersive historical fiction – it is practically perfect.

It’s interesting to view HILD against the (few) books in Griffith’s backlist. The SF novel AMMONITE was just okay for me. For an average writer, it would be good. For Griffith, whose writing is so far above average, it’s more interesting, for me, to look at it as an starter piece. I think one can see qualities in it that have matured in this book. THE BLUE PLACE and sequels (STAY, ALWAYS) are character-driven contemporary thrillers. The feel – much faster paced, for one thing – is quite different. And obviously the worlds and protagonists are very different as well. I can see these books were all written by the same author, there are things about the descriptive passages and the sentences that the reader can recognize, but if I didn’t know Griffith wrote all of these, I would miss it. And I somehow had forgotten about the near-future SF SLOW RIVER and haven’t read it (I just ordered it, though).

In sheer number of books, Griffith does not stand out. In quality of writing, there are few better. In breadth of genre, who matches her? A small handful of authors come fairly close. Barbara Hambly has written fantasy and historical mysteries, but nothing contemporary or SF. CJC has written SF and fantasy, but not historicals or contemporaries. Sharon Shinn has written fantasy and contemporary UF and a few SF. Gillian Bradshaw has written historicals and SF. Orson Scott Card has written fantasy, SF and historicals, but not contemporaries.

Though I think breadth of genre is something to admire, I would bet money that switching from one genre to another every few books makes it much, much tougher to build a readership. I hope that readers who love HILD will go back and try Griffith’s backlist, though, because her contemporaries in particular are well worth reading. Me, I will gladly buy anything Griffith writes, in any genre. But I hope she finishes the HILD series before moving on to something else.

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