70 Following


Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild - Nicola Griffith

If you love research-heavy historical fiction and complete immersion in other times and places, you should read this book. Likewise, if you love feminist historical fiction or you want to read about ways women can wield power in a patriarchal society. But if you’re looking for a plot-driven novel, or you’re bored by books that lean more heavily on setting than character, you may want to steer clear. Also note that despite the cover, this is definitely not YA in either content or style.

Saint Hilda of Whitby was an influential and renowned abbess in 7th century England. Virtually nothing is known about her early life, which is Griffith’s subject here: this book begins when Hild is 3, and ends abruptly when she’s around 20; Griffith is currently writing the second of what will probably be a trilogy. In this book, Hild grows up in the court of her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria (this part is true), where she gains notoriety as a child seer (this, as far as I can tell, is fiction). It's a tumultuous time, with England divided into many small kingdoms warring with each other for land and spoils, and with Christianity making inroads in a culture that previously worshipped many gods.

In her Author’s Note, Griffith explains that because so little is known of the real Hild, she recreated her story by researching the setting to death and then placing the character inside it: an interesting method and one that explains a great deal about this book. The level of research and immersion in the setting is nothing short of brilliant: everything is closely observed, from social interactions to food preparation to clothing, jewelry and decoration. The natural world, too, is described in vivid detail, from plants and animals to weather and the changing of seasons. I can’t think of another book that does a better job transporting the reader to its setting.

As for the plot, it suffers from some problems common to historical fiction based on real people. One is that the book has no clear narrative arc: we follow Hild through periods of violence, in which she accompanies her uncle to war, and periods of peace, in which she helps with the weaving and wanders about observing animal behavior. Sections of the story are very compelling, while in others little happens for extended periods; the pacing is fairly uniform throughout, but with perhaps more danger and incident in the beginning than toward the end. (I’ve never called out a blurber in a review before, but Val McDermid’s claim that this book “reads like a thriller” is, I’m sorry, flat-out unethical. Either she is lying or she’s incapable of understanding the difference between research-heavy historical fiction and a thriller, and either way she shouldn’t be writing blurbs. A book that devotes several pages to exploring the techniques of goldsmithing or the building of a hedge is nothing like a thriller. Fortunately, the digressions are well-written and never felt pedantic.)

The other problem is that real-life political conflicts are complex, involving more players than can be developed within the space of a novel; an author is forced to either simplify or pack the story with names that are meaningless to the reader. Griffith chooses the latter option. Eventually I gave up on understanding the political nuances and just read for Hild’s story, but future editions would be improved by a character list.

As for the characters themselves, they’re believable, but they didn’t impress me or inspire much feeling. To me Hild is the weakest of the bunch; it seems like she’s meant to be all things to all readers, having whatever reactions are convenient for the current scene. But the secondary characters are more convincing, and they believably inhabit their world. Their relationships feel authentic, and I appreciated Griffith’s focus on Hild’s relationships with the women in her life.

I would not recommend this to everyone: only if you want to read somewhat dense historical fiction that requires concentration and are less concerned about a traditional plot. So, 3.5 stars, because the things it does well, it does really well, and where it stumbles, it's still redeemable. I won't promise to read the sequel, but I'm glad I read this one.