Hild: seventh-century Britain comes alive through the eyes of a young girl

hildI finally finished Hild by Nicola Griffith, and I’m feeling sad about it, as one does at the end of a good book, even though historical fiction is not normally my thing. I was invited into a seventh-century Britain that I never knew I wanted to visit and was thoroughly immersed in a world of complex characters from many walks of life. Griffith’s characters are amazingly well drawn, as are the settings all over the British isle,

Leave aside the protagonist for a moment, readers will enjoy the slitty-eyed king who shows too many teeth in his smile; a slave who exerts substantial influence over the king’s war band by the sway of her hips, but who is a fully drawn character, not one dimensional; a priest who loses his status when his god goes out of favor; and another who thinks nothing of killing two sick infants in his eagerness to baptize them.

There’s one other character I just must compliment before discussing Hild herself, and that is her mother Breguswith. Early in the novel, she loses her bid to become royalty when her husband is killed, but somehow manages to wedge herself and her two daughters into the edges of the household of her cousin, another king on the rise. Breguswith plays the long game and manages to convince the king that her second daughter is a seer — “the light of the world” she calls her.  Being a seer is a dangerous line of business where kings’ bad moods or poor judgment could get you killed, but this tiger mom doesn’t balk and puts her youngest daughter on the line on more than one occasion.

At the same time that little Hild is learning how to read King Edwin, Breguswith is working out the best political match for her eldest daughter, and when that daughter’s importance looks jeopardized by the queen’s pregnancy, Breguswith does not hesitate to kill the queen by secretly delivering her some not-so-soothing herbs. Although she is called a witch by some and her obvious scheming is frowned on, she always regains her footing and manages to stay indispensable to the king’s household. Oh, and did I mention, she is both a healer and a weaver who builds the wool trade throughout the kingdom. And this character is only one of no less than six women whose lives are chronicled and explored in satisfying depth in this novel. Hild would pass any female character agency test with flying colors.

Without going to great lengths to describe all of Hild’s strengths and attributes, Griffith does an admirable job in depicting the world through the eyes of a girl who ages from three to her late teens over the course of the novel. I did doubt some of the wisdom attributed to three-year-old Hild, but found the book engrossing in large part because of the child’s fresh eyes on the world around her. Reading nature and human behavior makes up 90 percent of prophesying, as everyone knows, and it is nerve wracking to see the too-young Hild up against priests, warriors and her slitty-eyed uncle when called upon as seer. The girl’s relationship with Cian, a boy who is her oldest and closest friend, is incredibly well done. Equally convincing are Hild’s growing self awareness and her experiences of loneliness and sexual awakening.

Hild is a woman of action as well as visions. At one point in the novel she is given charge of a small band of men to eliminate bandits who are terrorizing part of Edwin’s lands. Her strengths are used primarily to track down the criminals, but she doesn’t cringe from killing people. This violence has a strong impact on her, and the book does not glamorize battle, but Hild shows us that having the skills to kill is just one more important part of life in this brutal period of history.

The only difficulty I had with this novel were the names of people and places. This is no fault of the author, for she is making every effort to render a world based on real people and actual human societies in that time. My problems with names like Fiachnae mac Báetáin, Rhianmelldt and Uinniau, which at times made my eyes glaze over and caused me to lose track of the political chess pieces in the novel, are due to my own lazy reading habits. Thank goodness Griffith provides notes on pronunciation and a glossary.

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