Hild by Nicola Griffith

The front of my copy of Hild has this quote from Neal Stephenson:

“Extraordinary … [Hild] resonates to many of the same chords as Beowulf, the legends of King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.”

The problem: Hild is neither myth nor fantasy. There are no monsters, magic, or elements of the supernatural. It’s historical fiction: an imaginative account of the real Saint Hilda of Whitby, a seventh-century woman who accomplished much more than her status at birth would have suggested. As historical fiction, it’s a wonderful novel. I’m not sure why Stephenson or others feel the need to bill it as something it’s not.

There were a few other elements that diminished the experience for me. First, there’s a pedigree chart in the front matter. I’m sure this is intended to help readers with the complicated family connections that are central to a tale of the nobility. But an element of that chart gives away a plot point which in the text was kept intentionally ambiguous until the closing pages. My advice: if you read the book, start by ripping out that page without consulting it.

Second, you should know at the start that this is only Part One of Hild’s story. Though some major themes are resolved in this first book, the ending points to the complications to come. Personally, had I known, I would have waited for the second book to enjoy the full story.

I certainly will read that second book when it arrives. Nicola Griffith has done a masterful job of bringing Hild and her world to life. It’s a fascinating period in England, where the Saxons, British, Angles, Mercians, Welsh, Picts, Celts, and Franks were all vying for power in the wake of the collapsed Roman Empire. The old Gods of the Norse were just waning in influence in the context of a growing battle between local priests and representatives of the Pope to convert and claim the island’s inhabitants for Christ. Hild is in the middle of it all, negotiating old ideas and new while carving out a niche for herself, a role at once precarious and powerful. There’s really no need to line up Hild beside myth and fantasy when the history is more than enough to captivate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *