Historical fiction, well done, is a delicious form of time travel. We read books about the past so we can experience it, in all its color and mystery, from the privileged comfort of a chair. We experience its joys, without truly enduring its hardships. In the hands of a great storyteller, it carries us into lands every bit as faraway and exotic as Frank Herbert’s Arrakis or Ursula Le Guin’s Gethen. Historical fiction even makes aliens of our ancestors, by illuminating how humanity’s attitudes, beliefs and cultural practices have changed over centuries gone by.
Such a book is Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
There isn’t much known about the life of Saint Hilda of Whitby, according to Griffith: her biography is largely limited to a five page mention in the Venerable Bede that more or less begins at the point when she took orders as a nun, after having lived, according to him, “most nobly in the secular habit,” for thirty three years.
Weaving these scraps of information into what is known about the period when Britain began its conversion to Christianity, Griffith has created a remarkable fictional account of Hilda’s early years. Set in a meticulously researched seventh century, the story travels with the ever-moving court of Hild’s uncle Edwin, an ambitious empire-builder from Northumbria who seeks to become overking of the Angles.
Hild’s story begins when she is three and her father is poisoned. Her mother, Breguswith, moves their household to Edwin’s court for safety. Mom immediately begins some high-end scheming. She has already laid the groundwork for Hild to have a very special place within the court, because when she was pregnant, she revealed a vision that predicted Hild would be “the light of the world.” Now, as she works come valuable to Edwin, Breguswith grooms Hild to become both a prophet and an advisor to the king in his endless power struggles against other would-be rulers and factions.
It is a strange life for an unusual child. Hild watches everything around her very closely indeed, drawing conclusions that others see only with difficulty, and—at first—largely following her mother’s advice to keep her mouth shut. She is a genuine prodigy, shining an immense intellectual curiosity in every direction. As she moves through the world, we learn about it with her, picking up everything from the rhythms of nature to agricultural practices to, always, the nuances of the brewing struggle between followers of Britain’s old gods and the upstarts from Rome, Christians looking for converts to a more exclusive form of worship.
In time, of course, Hild does begin to share her observations with Edwin, placing herself in a state of constant—though sometimes nebulous—risk. As a seer, she must effortlessly and accurately predict the future. She does this, mostly, by using the Sherlock Holmes skillset: observation, intelligence-gathering, and deduction. She extracts favors from Edwin with every correct prophecy, building hedges against a day when she fails him, or runs afoul of the Christians who dislike prophecy in general and female prophets in particular.
All the while, she and her family are concealing a dangerous secret from their king.
One of the intriguing elements of Hild’s character is her refusal to accept what seem to be obvious limits. From earliest childhood, she seeks to gather strength to herself, offsetting her tactical deficits. The greatest deficit, of course, is her sex. Despite her obvious utility as an advisor, she is still female and still, therefore, a marriageable property. Her sister is married for political reasons when Hild is young, driving the point home. Losing her plunges Hild into another, very difficult, battle, against loneliness. Who is fit company for a seer? Who might she ever take as a lover or a husband?
I came to Hild with one small thread of resistance: the time Griffith spent on this novel (and, hopefully, its sequel) meant there’d be no new Aud book in the near future. The Blue Place and its sequels are among my very favorite mysteries; we readers get terribly greedy and unreasonable about such things, especially when we are filled with insane love for a given literary creation.
Even so—or perhaps because of it—I expected big things from this book, and I was not disappointed.
Griffith’s prose is a tapestry, stitched so meticulously that I found myself gasping, at times, at the perfection of her word choices. I’m not a noisy reader, but this book made me one: there were giggles and “Hmm!” and exclamations galore. This may be all the more remarkable because the language in this novel comes packaged with an extra challenge: post-Roman Britain was permeated with old English terms and concepts that are all but forgotten now. Hild is a book with a glossary, in other words. In less gifted hands, these encounters with æthelings, thegns, Yffings and Loids... all this new vocabulary might be a stumbling block to enjoyment. But between the loveliness of the line-by-line writing and the compelling nature of the story itself, you don’t care. If half of this book were in Russian, I’d have fetched an English-Russian dictionary, plop down, and pore over every phrase.
The language, of course, aids this sense of having travelled into the past. Hild is a closely guided tour of a land in transition. It’s a chance to see the people of the seventh century dipping their toes in the waters of Christianity. To see them trying it on, and slowly getting better at it. The smattering of conversions at Edwin’s court, all of them politically timed, turns to a flood. The subtle ways in which the characters—including Hild herself—adapt to, embrace and sometimes exploit the faith are endlessly intriguing.
Hild is far from the only engaging character in this book, of course: there’s the mercurial Edwin, his fanatically ambitious bishop, Paulinus, an itinerant priest-spy, Fursy, who is usually Hild’s ally. There’s her dangerous, scheming mother, who is both a mentor and occasionally an adversary. Most of all there is Hild’s best friend, Cian, who from childhood has wanted nothing more than to be a soldier, and who gets his wish, thereby plunging Hild into a perpetual state of fear for his safety.
This is a book sure to be compared with everything from The Mists of Avalon and Wolf Hall to, I’m betting, The Lord of the Rings. It has it all—the epic sweep, the utterly convincing level of detail, and the larger-than-life characters. Griffith has taken a handful of pages from the Venerable Bede and made a gift of them for us all, creating in Hild a passionate, unique and thoroughly unforgettable heroine.
Hild is available November 12th from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second of The Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)