I can’t believe that I haven’t reviewed this book. I’ve certainly talked about it enough. I’ve even interviewed Nicola Griffith about it for an LGBT+ History Month event. But there’s no actual review. I haven’t had time to re-read the book, but with Menewood due very soon now, here are some thoughts on its precursor.
Hild is based on the life of St. Hild of Whitby. She was a real historical person, and is best known to us for having played a major role in the Synod of Whitby, at which the Christian church in Britain decided to ally itself with the church in Rome, and to eschew the teachings of the Celtic Church. This is a hugely important turning point in the history of these islands, and also of Christian belief.
None of this features in the original novel. That tells of Hild’s life from precocious teenager to young woman. The religious conflict in the book is between Paulinus, a Christian bishop and also a real person, and Coifi, a priest of Woden. It isn’t a major plot point, but it is there. Paulinus, having triumphed over the pagans, will doubtless continue to feature.
Not that this has much effect on the common people of Hild’s world. She becomes widely believed to have magic powers, primarily because she is smarter than the average Saxon. Hild, as portrayed by Griffith, is a keen observer of both human nature and the natural world. She understand the cycle of the seasons, she’s familiar with the behaviour of animals, and that of kings. Because of this she becomes invaluable to her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, who rules over a substantial part of what we now call Northern England (and bits of Southern Scotland).
One of the most impressive things about the book is the amount of research that Griffith has poured into it. Not only is she drawing on the very latest research about Early Mediaeval life in Britain, she also has to research all of the things about the world that Hild knows, and uses to her advantage.
The book also portrays Hild as unashamedly bisexual. If you study history, rather than get your knowledge from far-right rabble-rousers on social media, you will know that this is entirely reasonable.
Of course there is also Griffith’s luscious prose. This is a writer who has moved seamlessly from science fiction to detective novels to autobiography and now to historical fiction, and has won awards in all of these categories. Hild is not overtly fantastical, but Griffith’s most recent work, Spear, engages fully with the mythic, Arthurian version of the Early Mediaeval, and that has won awards too. However, Hild is fantasy in a Magic Realism sense, because pretty much everyone in the book (except maybe Hild herself) believes that magic is real. The book feels like fantasy, and the quality of the worldbuilding is outstanding.
So yes, this is an amazing book, and far more people than me have been eagerly awaiting the sequel. There isn’t long to wait now.
By: Nicola Griffith
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