Hild by Nicola Griffith

Reviewed by Helen

HildThat night she dreamt Fursey was talking to Hereswith. It’s what women do: weave the web, pull the strings, herd into the corner. It’s their only power. Then she was inside Hereswith, and Fursey was talking to her. Unless they’re seers. Your mother has built you a place where you can speak your word openly.

Hild is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time. Set in 7th century Britain – an island divided by warring kings, where the old pagan religions are under threat from the advance of Christianity – it’s the story of the girl who would later become St Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is the daughter of Hereric of Deira and his wife, Breguswith. She is only three years old when her father is poisoned while in exile in the lands of the Brittonic king, Ceredig, and she, her mother and sister join the court of Hereric’s brother, King Edwin of Northumbria. As the two girls grow older, Hild’s sister Hereswith becomes Edwin’s ‘peaceweaver’ – a female relative who can be married off to secure alliances with other rulers – but Hild’s wyrd (fate) will be something very different.

Ever since Hild was born, her mother, Breguswith, has talked of a dream she’d had during her pregnancy…a dream in which Hild was said to be “the light of the world”. In this novel – the first of a planned trilogy – we see how Hild becomes Edwin’s seer, foretelling his future and giving him the advice he needs to protect and expand his kingdom. Many of Hild’s predictions are based on her observations of the behaviour of animals or changes in the weather and on her shrewd understanding of human ambitions and motivations, but as her reputation as a prophet grows, so does her value to the king.

Reading Hild, for me, was like entering a different world. From the very beginning I was confronted with strange place names – Caer Loid, Elmet, Deira – and unfamiliar words – gesith, wealh, seax, haegtes. Yet I was not reading a book set in a fantasy land, but in my own country. At first I felt lost (and very aware of how ignorant I am of this whole period of history) but eventually I began to slowly make sense of Hild’s world and become absorbed in her story. Nicola Griffith’s writing is beautiful and lyrical; the Anglo-Saxon people lived an almost semi-nomadic lifestyle and there are some gorgeous, poetic descriptions of nature and scenery as Hild, with the rest of Edwin’s court, moves from one part of the kingdom to another.

Hild is not an easy read that you can breeze through with your mind on something else; it does require some effort from the reader, but I definitely think it’s worth making that effort. The only thing that prevented me from truly loving this book is the fact that I found Hild herself difficult to fully engage with on an emotional level until almost the end. Apart from that, I thought Hild was a hugely impressive novel; it reminded me in many ways of Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which is high praise from me! I’m looking forward to reading the next part of Hild’s story whenever the second book in the trilogy becomes available.

As a side note, I read an ebook version of Hild but the problem with this was that I couldn’t easily keep turning back to the map, family tree and glossary – and believe me, this is the type of book where you really need to be able to do that! I was delighted, then, to discover that on Nicola Griffith’s blog she provides all of these extras for readers of the ebook to download and use for reference. Very useful, even though by the time I made this discovery I was halfway through the book and had already worked a lot of things out for myself anyway!

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Helen blogs at She Reads Novels.

Nicola Griffith, Hild (Blackfriars, July 2014) 978-0349134222, 560 pages, hardback.

Nicola wrote an article for issue 2 of Shiny New Books about discovering Hild’s story. Read it here.

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