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Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild coverI've previously read Griffith's first two novels, Ammonite and Slow River, both of which were science fiction. It's been years since then, but my vague memory is that I really liked Slow River and didn't care much for Ammonite. Her next three novels were crime fiction about a lesbian detective, and I guess I'm not enough of a fan of crime novels (as opposed to crime films) to have gotten interested. But as soon as I heard about Hild, which is based on a real life seventh century woman who ended up becoming a Christian saint, I was instantly interested.

This is the first of what Griffith says will be a two-book series. Hild is around six at the start of the novel, and she's thirteen at the end. (The historical Hild was 66 when she died, so I'll be curious how much of her life the second novel covers.) The genre is what I think of as court intrigue. It's all about plots and schemes between various people and groups aspiring to political power. Hild was the niece of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria, and so the novel treats her as a player (at first more of a puppet) in the game of power around the throne and between the other kingdoms in Britain.

What surprised me is how much this aspect of the novel reminded me of C.J. Cherryh's science fiction novel, Cyteen. Both books are about brilliant adolescents caught in a web of incomprehensible intrigue and hidden malice, desperately trying to figure out the rules of the game, and suffering a steady diet of existential crisis resulting in emotional explosions and cycles of hurt/comfort that began to feel a bit slashy or fan-fictiony after a while. I have to say that I got a little tired of the court intrigue over the course of the novel, and it wasn't helped by the fact that there are multitudes of characters with difficult names that were hard to keep track of, not to mention all the political and ethnic entities and contending mini-kingdoms. It was difficult to care what was happening when it became so difficult to follow what was going on and what was at stake, and then piling on double-crosses, shifting allegiances, hidden motives, misunderstandings, etc., etc.

What I thought was utterly brilliant was what I'll call the historical world-building. Griffith's portrayal of the material world of seventh century Britain is just as complicated as her portrayal of the political world, but I found the material world much more interesting. Hild is considered a seer, but what we see is that she's a keen observer of the natural (and social) world. So we get sensual descriptions of birds, herbs, trees, domestic animals, weather, stone, metals, weaving, cloth, clothing, armament, and food, oh, the food! Half the recipes described sound utterly foul-tasting, but the textures of it all are still fascinating. Griffith plays close attention to the production of goods, and she, like her political players, pays close attention to trade as well. All of the material goods are seen by Hild as signs of larger patterns and processes that allow her to read the world and predict what's going to happen. The first thing that struck me about the novel was how much we're told about what Hild smells, but really it covers all the senses. Thus the sensuality that I found so compelling. I could read descriptions of Hild sitting by a stream reading the world around her all day long. The book really sings in those passages, and Griffith does a tremendous job of showing (and never telling) how Hild's visions are the product of her intelligence and ability to observe and absorb and synthesize.

So I guess my thumbnail review would be that I liked the worldbuilding but didn't care much for the political intrigue. Which isn't to say that the political intrigue was poorly handled. Often the emotional climaxes of the intrigue struck me with great potency. It just didn't seem as interesting to me as seeing the type of healing practices Hild and her mother used, or how the women collaborated in their weaving or other domestic chores. It's a very woman-centered story (although men are powerful players as well, and hold all the official positions of power), and the focus on food and clothing and the production of both is only one aspect of that.

I'll definitely be reading the second book. I'll be curious to see how the pagan Hild, who converts to Christianity for purely political reasons by the end of the novel, will become a nun and founder of Whitney Abbey by the end of her life.


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(Deleted comment)
Mar. 4th, 2014 05:06 am (UTC)
Yes, I can imagine that other readers would find the intrigue compelling, and obviously I didn't mind it so much that I was put off the book or from wanting to read the next one.
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