Published: November 12, 2013
‘Hild is born into a world in transition. In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, usually violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods’ priests are worrying. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief.
Hild is the king’s youngest niece. She has 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 human nature and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. She establishes herself as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—until she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, her family, her loved ones, and the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.
Hild is a young woman at the heart of the violence, subtlety, and mysticism of the early medieval age—all of it brilliantly and accurately evoked by Nicola Griffith’s luminous prose. Recalling such feats of historical fiction as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, Hild brings a beautiful, brutal world—and one of its most fascinating, pivotal figures, the girl who would become St. Hilda of Whitby—to vivid, absorbing life.
I have had this book on my TBR list for a very long time. It’s about a fascinating historical figure, Hild of Whitby, and it’s about the Anglo-Saxon period, which I think is an under-featured era in British history in today’s fiction. (The only other book I’ve read that occurs generally in this time period is The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.) It was with great disappointment, then, that I realized Hild may be one of the slowest books I have ever read.
Interestingly, the blurbs on the back cover disagree with me, and I seriously wonder how the publisher managed to solicit such verbs because they are absolutely glowing. I have never seen blurbs offer such high praise. One goes so far as to suggest that Hild could have been the source material/inspiration for great works like Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings. (Seriously, they suggest that the greatest poem of the Anglo-Saxon period could take lessons from this novel.) Another blurber specifically praises the pacing of the novel, insisting it’s not slow at all. I’m very confused.
The book, you see, is not action-packed at all. It’s sort of about political intrigue and how Hild’s uncle King Edwin expands his kingdom and maintains his power, and how Hild’s family schemes and plots to stay in favor with him. However, a lot of it is just Hild’s character development. Historically, Hild was renowned for her wisdom, and powerful people sought her advice. So Griffiths starts the book when Hild is a toddler and basically spends hundreds of pages showing Hild growing up, sitting around pondering birds and trees and people and barely speaking to anyone ever so she can hone her observation sills. I have to say, this gets boring quickly.
I was not particularly impressed even when Hild finally start coming into her wisdom/prophetic powers. Basically the whole thing is a sham. Because Hild sits around observing people and being weird, she is apparently smarter than everyone around her, even when she’s ten years old. Her “mystical advice” and “prophecies” for the king, then, are just statements she has made from logic. (Ex. King So and So will attack us soon because I realized he hates us, and the weather will be good for moving armies in a couple weeks.) She dresses it all up as magical omens from the gods to be taken more seriously, but she’s just lying. And since her uncle the king converts to Christianity later in the book, she just switches things around to claim she’s getting visions from the Christian God instead of Woden. I’d probably be okay with this if the book were just fiction and not historical fiction. However, I found it weird that Griffith would take a historical figure who was a saint and a nun and write a version of her where Hild thinks religion is a joke but manipulates it for her own gain. I’d have liked to see a version of St. Hilda who, you know, actually believed in God.
There are elements of the book that are sound. The intrigue is occassionally interesting (though there are lots names to remember and alliances to follow), and the research seems sound enough (though sometimes I do thin Griffith inserts her own modern sensibilities about things). If there book were about 200 pages shorter, I think I could recommend it. As it is, it’s slow and tedious and frequently unconvincing with the characters. I wanted to like, but I just can’t.