Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Cover of "Hild"Hild is a fascinating historical fiction about Saint Hilda of Whitby.  It’s a slow-paced book but not dull.  It’s immersive.  To read the book is to step into the 600’s in Britain, where Hild survives by watching everything and everyone around her, even as she struggles to make sense of her own desires and dreams.

In this book (Griffith tentatively plans to do three), Hild goes from age three to adulthood.  During this time she become’s the king’s seer and has to navigate treacherous politics and war.  She learns to fight and she participates in battle and in ridding a region of bandits.  She learns weaving and some healing arts and the art of midwifery.  Do not read this book if you are pregnant as not all pregnancies end well and some are very, very bloody and harrowing.  She struggles with her sexuality, especially her feelings towards her foster-brother.  Above all, she watches.

Read because of the gorgeous use of language.  Here’s a sample passage:

She crunched in the grey-brown sedge on the edge of the rhyme and watched.  It might be spring half a mile away, down in the valley along the beck, but here, high on the march moor by the sea, it was a harsh, color-less world.  Here there was no greening blossom, no curve of burbling stream or round river rocks.  The rhymes ran spear-straight into the horizon, the willow beds running between them, all under a tin-grey sky.  Steel-coloured water lapped and slapped along the dirt banks, and the willow canes, not yet in leaf, rattled and shook like tally sticks.

It’s interesting to me that this book has been nominated for a Nebula Award, because the elements of fantasy are very minimal.  This is a book that is deeply based in realism.  Smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste are important to Hild personally and politically.  She can tell what’s happening inside a pregnant woman by looking at the woman’s urine and she can tell whether or not someone is pregnant in the first place by smelling them.  She knows how to deliver a painless mercy kill to a wounded man and she knows that if she plants red flowers she’ll have an advantage in trade the following year (because bees like red flowers, which means more honey, which means more mead).  Most of Hild’s prophecies come from her careful observations of the world around her.  She knows that the coming winter will be hard because she watched bird behavior, not because of mystical events.  I absolutely think this book deserves awards but I’m not sure the category of “fantasy” is accurate for it.

Anyone who is interested in the craft of writing should read at least some of this book, even if the genre isn’t interesting to them.  It was certainly interesting to me, although it moved slowly.  There’s a lot of waiting and observing, punctuated by quick, brutal action and confusing political turmoil.  I cared about hold and worried about her and I’m anxious for the sequel!

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