The flap copy for Hild opens with scene setting: “In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying.” And into this historical milieu comes a young girl whose mother dreamt of birthing the “light of the world”—Hild, niece to the king, a brilliant child who will one day be recorded by the Venerable Bede as Saint Hilda of Whitby. This novel follows her childhood and growth into a powerful woman of her own right, filling in the gaps of history with a riveting narrative of kings and conflicts, omens and gods, loves and losses. Nicola Griffith also happens to be an author familiar in science fiction circles for her previous books (ex., Ammonite), most of which feature queer women of varying stripes.
So, when it came to choosing a book for the first installment of this June’s Pride Month Extravaganza series, Hild seemed like a good candidate—possibly even a bit of a soft-ball, since it’s certainly received some buzz in speculative fiction circles. There’s even been a previous review by Alyx Dellamonica here on Tor.com. Nonetheless, when thinking about “books that aren’t published as speculative but are queer and would totally appeal to an SFF audience,” I immediately landed on this one.
Probably because it’s also really, really good.
As with the rest of the books we’ll be talking about this June, Hild sits catty-corner to the speculative publishing field proper. It received a plenty of mainstream attention, and is marketed as the sort of book that gets shelved under “general fiction.” But it’s got its own internal narratives of speculation—alternate histories, imagined histories—that place it closer than a bookstore shelf might. Griffith herself wrote a short essay on the genre of the novel, published right here at Tor.com, in which she notes the slippage between speculative fiction and historical fiction, between Hild’s world of patterns and gods and our own.
Perhaps this isn’t a novel that’s directly involved with magic and monsters, but the world of the book is a superstitious and magical world, one that happens to be a part of our own past as well. There’s certainly an appeal for genre readers in this text, regardless of the vagaries of shelf classification: the role of king’s seer is Hild’s mantle, and her relationship to nature, self, and politics often appears to others—and sometimes to Hild herself—uncanny. Plus, the court intrigues and political machinations of the small kingdoms of the British Isles in the seventh century are as baroque and engaging as any a reader might look to find in a big-fat-fantasy-with-maps. Except cooler, because it actually happened, though perhaps not quite this way.
And then there’s what I’d generally call the queer content, which is why I’m talking about it here in the first place. This is also catty-corner to the book proper. Hild’s relationships are, of course, significant to her life, but sex and sexuality are presented as matters of nature more than as matters of self—accurate to the time period. Somehow, though, this makes the book also a deep comfort and pleasure to read. Rather than standing as remarked-upon figurations of identity, Hild’s romances and sexual encounters are merely parts of her life, balanced against her role in court and her attempts to keep her family line safe. In short, it’s just normal that she has affairs with both women and men, and that’s nice.
In fact, one of the things I found compelling was Griffith’s attention to sexuality as more of a class function than a gender function: who a person is intimate with is judged more on terms of status than embodiment, as Hild comes to learn. The ruling class may dabble with lesser individuals and it doesn’t “count,” but taking to bed someone of equal rank is an issue—as it is when Cian forms a relationship with a Welsh princess near the end of the novel, a politically significant act that matters far more than his previous dairy-girls and dalliances. So, sexuality matters—but not in the ways we’re used to.
And the characters themselves are, of course, based on real people for the most part—but they’re also immensely real on the page. Hild’s complex relationship with Cian as best friend and estranged friend and finally husband throughout the novel is as gripping as the politics and the struggle to survive; her dealing with trauma—what we could think of as PTSD—after killing is as delicate and intense as anything I could have hoped for as well. The formal pair relationships between upper class women are also fascinating: Hild and Begu are more than sisters, though not lovers. However, their platonic love for one another is strong and sustaining, despite the formality of the arrangement and the slight class differential built into it wherein Begu follows Hild in life and marriage. Her friendship with Begu is one of the most important things in Hild’s life; Griffith doesn’t short-change female platonic love, not one bit, and that’s awesome.
Furthermore, there are some interesting gender explorations in the novel too. Hild is a woman of skirt and sword, as the text reminds us again and again, a figure who blurs the lines of gender and propriety in her role as seer and occasionally king’s fist. Other characters sometimes pejoratively refer to her as a “freemartin,” defined helpfully at the end of the book as a “female calf masculinized in the womb by a male twin.” But Hild herself seems to embrace the potential her gender-slipping roles offer her, seeking to push boundaries where she can—for example, she can’t use a sword by taboo, so she learns instead to fight with a staff. She won’t give up the ability to fight; instead, she learns how to create a middle path, a shared male-female role.
So in several ways, this is a very queer book—the girlhood life pairings, like a marriage themselves, and the gender politics being only one little part—and a very speculative book. It’s also a gorgeous, detailed, gripping historical with all the politics and complex family maneuvers a reader could want. For a reader who appreciates the “drama of manners” books of Ellen Kushner, or even the larger-scale fantasies of Sarah Monette or George R. R. Martin, Hild has buckets of greatness to offer. And, more to the point, that greatness revolves around a woman whose gender performance is complex and variable, whose lovers are men and women, whose personal struggles also span gods and kings. Hild herself is an excellent protagonist from childhood up to her marriage at the close of the book, powerful and careful by turns, but also so deeply human and flawed.
This novel has a little of everything, and it’s a great read with an amazing depth of research and detail. It’s truly stunning in scope. Griffith’s prose also reflects the cadence and poetics of early British culture, balancing between different languages and different kingdoms, in a way that is handsome and compelling. It’s a joy to read and a pleasure to experience. I found myself glued to it with bated breath, continually eager to discover where war would move next, how Hild would manage her intrigues and her family’s survival.
So, to kick off this year’s Pride Month Extravaganza, I strongly recommend giving Hild a look.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.