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Hild, Nicola Griffith.

May 17, 2015

Hild, Nicola Griffith.  New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

FAVORITE — 5 stars

A wonderful historical novel, set in seventh-century England and centering on a powerful woman, niece of the king, his seer, and the “illuminator” of him and his people through a time of turbulent change.

This book is historical fiction at its best. As Nicola Griffin relates, she has learned everything knowable about the time and place of her story. Within the structure of what can be known she imagines what might have been. She does not write counter to what is factual history, but uses it, not as a fancy backdrop, but to structure and shape her narrative. What she writes is fiction, held in check by the facts; exactly as major European historian, Natalie Zemon Davis, describes.

The result is a big book, big enough to weave together a multifaceted narrative of the public and private lives of individuals and peoples. It has the power and charm of big novels to hold you for days of reading and delving always deeper into big questions of what is happening and why. There is violence and love, loyalty and betrayal, constantly changing factors to be evaluated and addressed. It presents a highly gendered world in which Hild, as seer and royal niece with both “skirt and sword” moves between the spaces of men and women.

In the seventh century, England was a land of many small kingdoms locked in constant tension and frequent war. Beneath the court elites and warriors were those they ruled, the wealt, people analogues in some ways to the indigenous peoples of later colonial periods. These were the ones who served and yet were invisible to those who used and killed them. Primarily this was an agricultural society but the power of trade and the early industrial weaving were beginning to be seen as valuable.

In addition, Christian missionaries, in increasing numbers, were entering the country, using and being used in the kings’ constant games of power. While some churchmen were greedy and abusive, others became part of Hild’s network of friends. Even more important than their presence and the connection with the world beyond England, they brought with them the written word, and possibility of correspondence with those who were absent.

Hild herself is a fascinating character. Her mother had dreamed of her being the light of the world. Growing up, she is close to the son of her mother’s woman, a man who remains significant in her life, but more as an alter ego than a romantic lover. From an young age she is significant but vulnerable within her uncle’s court. Within the women’s quarters, she has a strong supportive friends, but she can never by completely like them. She is also a strong woman, functioning in the men’s world of governance and battle. Hers is strictly gendered world, but one in which she faces troubling questions of responsibly and guilt over who lives and who must die for the good of the whole. She raises moral questions unavoidable to all who led, questions about who must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

A woman living and serving at the edges of her own world, Hild devotes herself to searching for the over-riding patterns that shape events. Her ability is not really magical, but a sensitivity to what is often overlooked by others. She is not particularly interested in religion. Although she formally converts to Christianity because her uncle demands it, she remains less concerned with spirituality than the actions of the priests who focus their hatred on her.

This is a well-crafted book that simultaneously weaves together high adventure and meditations on power and injustice. Well-drawn and varied characters react to an ever-chancing political environment. It is also a lush and sensuous book, with sexuality between women and between women and men. Even more, Hild reveals a bodily awareness of places and weather and events.

Nicola Griffith is an English woman, now living in the United States. She has previously published several other novels, less ambitious than Hild. Her Ammonite is a rich, utopian fantasy, set in a world where only women can survive. It was of the first books I read and reviewed for my blog. Recently re-reading it, I am enjoying as much as I did on my first reading.

I forcefully recommend Hild and Griffith’s other books to many readers. I am thrilled that Griffith is at work on another volume about Hild and her world.

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