Saturday, December 07, 2013


Hild, Nicola Griffith, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2013, 536 pp

I have spent the last four days in seventh century Britain so fully engrossed in its brutal and beautiful world that sitting down at my computer feels like I have come back to the future.

Saint Hilda of Whitby, daughter of a Northumbrian prince, grew up to become an Abbess, a trainer of bishops for the growing Christian church in Britain, and a consultant to kings and princes, but except for a brief mention in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, aka the Father of English History, the details of her early life are scant.

Nicola Griffith, award-winning author of science fiction and mystery novels, grew up in Yorkshire, on the coast of Great Britain, formerly part of Northumbria. In 2008 she set out to write a historical novel based there. She now lives in Seattle but says, "I'm the product of two thousand years of history." She has been visiting Whitby at least once a year for about 30 years and researching the time period corresponding to Hild's first twenty years for over a decade. The result is her fictional creation of what might have been the young life of Hild.

Like many dedicated readers of fiction, I have long been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur. It wasn't until I read The Mists of Avalon in 1988 that I realized what I wanted to know about was the transition from the old pagan mysteries to the Roman religion based on Jesus Christ. At least in the Western world, it was an insidious transformation from a more balanced male/female culture to the partriarchal template under which we still live.

Hild, who lived a century after Arthur, was born a "pagan" under the Anglo-Saxon deity Woden yet became a Christian saint. Her mother called her "the light of the world." In Nicola Griffith's imagination she becomes a girl of preternatural intelligence, strong willed, observant, able to see the patterns in natural life and in human relations both personal and political.

She is one of those characters balanced on the bleeding edge between the male and female principles, between knowledge and intuition. She learns to read, she is brave, knows how to wield a knife, and does not shrink from violence. Yet she loves both men and women with a full heart. She is pushed into the role of the King's seer by her wily and ambitious mother and uses that position to keep those she loves safe in a treacherous and bloodthirsty world.

How could I not become completely entangled with her fate? She holds her own amongst many of my favorite heroes and heroines: from Ayla of Clan of the Cave Bear to Morgaine of The Mists of Avalon to Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall to Killashandra Ree of The Crystal Singer Trilogy and many more.

A word to the skeptical: The book is long. It moves at the pace of Medieval life, with the seasons and long periods of daily drudgery broken by feasting and sudden outbursts of war. It vacillates between the contemplative inner life of Hild and her feats of strength. Like most courts in these locations, they move from place to place on a regular basis and these locations, as well as the characters, are named in the Old English style, which can become confusing. A list of characters, a glossary and old maps are helpful.

But as expected from a speculative fiction writer, Nicola Griffith is a master of world building and she employs her vast research only in service of the story. Her writing is poetic and tuneful, like lyrics to a song. Either one likes this sort of thing or one doesn't and the author does not hold your hand. You must work for your reading pleasure just as the characters must work everyday to ensure their survival, but it is all leavened with wry humor, sex, and plenty of beer and mead.

(Hild is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. This sounds VERY good....thanks for sharing.

    Going to check it out.

    ENJOY your week.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved December/January Edition. I am in the list as #33. My book entry is below.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry

    If you get a chance, also stop by this fun post: What Would You Give Your Book Character For Christmas?

  2. Did you say KILLASHANDRA REE!? One of my very favorite McCaffery characters! I've had this on my list for awhile... I think I'm number 20 (on 25 copies) on the hold list at the library.

    1. I did say Killashandra Ree. Unquestionably my very favorite McCaffrey character! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Hild.

  3. I may have to get this one when my TBR is finally under control!

    1. I hear you! At least I made you aware of it.