Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild “That night she dreamt Fursey was talking to Hereswith. It’s what women do: weave the web, pull the strings, herd into the corner. It’s their only power. Then she was inside Hereswith, and Fursey was talking to her. Unless they’re seers. Your mother has built you a place where you can speak your word openly.

Hild is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time. Set in 7th century Britain – an island divided by warring kings, where the old pagan religions are under threat from the advance of Christianity – it’s the story of the girl who would later become St Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is the daughter of Hereric of Deira and his wife, Breguswith. She is only three years old when her father is poisoned while in exile in the lands of the Brittonic king, Ceredig, and she, her mother and sister join the court of Hereric’s brother, King Edwin of Northumbria. As the two girls grow older, Hild’s sister Hereswith becomes Edwin’s ‘peaceweaver’ – a female relative who can be married off to secure alliances with other rulers – but Hild’s wyrd (fate) will be something very different.

Ever since Hild was born, her mother, Breguswith, has talked of a dream she’d had during her pregnancy…a dream in which Hild was said to be “the light of the world”. In this novel – the first of a planned trilogy – we see how Hild becomes Edwin’s seer, foretelling his future and giving him the advice he needs to protect and expand his kingdom. Many of Hild’s predictions are based on her observations of the behaviour of animals or changes in the weather and on her shrewd understanding of human ambitions and motivations, but as her reputation as a prophet grows, so does her value to the king.

Reading Hild, for me, was like entering a different world. From the very beginning I was confronted with strange place names – Caer Loid, Elmet, Deira – and unfamiliar words – gesith, wealh, seax, haegtes. Yet I was not reading a book set in a fantasy land, but in my own country. At first I felt lost (and very aware of how ignorant I am of this whole period of history) but eventually I began to slowly make sense of Hild’s world and become absorbed in her story. Nicola Griffith’s writing is beautiful and lyrical; the Anglo-Saxon people lived an almost semi-nomadic lifestyle and there are some gorgeous, poetic descriptions of nature and scenery as Hild, with the rest of Edwin’s court, moves from one part of the kingdom to another.

Hild is not an easy read that you can breeze through with your mind on something else; it does require some effort from the reader, but I definitely think it’s worth making that effort. The only thing that prevented me from truly loving this book is the fact that I found Hild herself difficult to fully engage with on an emotional level until almost the end. Apart from that, I thought Hild was a hugely impressive novel; it reminded me in many ways of Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which is high praise from me! I’m looking forward to reading the next part of Hild’s story whenever the second book in the trilogy becomes available.

As a side note, I read an ebook version of Hild but the problem with this was that I couldn’t easily keep turning back to the map, family tree and glossary – and believe me, this is the type of book where you really need to be able to do that! I was delighted, then, to discover that on Nicola Griffith’s blog she provides all of these extras for readers of the ebook to download and use for reference. Very useful, even though by the time I made this discovery I was halfway through the book and had already worked a lot of things out for myself anyway!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of Hild via NetGalley

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14 thoughts on “Hild by Nicola Griffith

  1. Alex says:

    I’ve always loved the story of Hild and so although I don’t normally read much historical fiction this is definitely one I shall be adding to the tbr list. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    • Helen says:

      I think this might be the sort of historical fiction you would enjoy, Alex, and if you already know Hild’s story you’ll probably have an easier time with this book than I did!

  2. Cat says:

    Delighted to read you thought so highly of Hild. It’s one of my most-looking-forward-to books at the moment but still only on order at the library so will have to be patient.

    • Helen says:

      I definitely found it very reminiscent of King Hereafter – not just the setting, but also the way you have to read between the lines and try to interpret what is and is not being said. I think you would probably enjoy it.

  3. Lizzi says:

    Fantastic review. I’m posting mine tomorrow and found it quite hard to know where to start! There’s so much you could talk about with this book, so many different aspects and themes and issues. You’ve managed to boil it down to key factors, which is great, and I really enjoyed reading your review. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I’ll look forward to reading your review tomorrow, Lizzi. I agree that it was difficult to decide what to focus on…I realise I’ve barely mentioned the religious aspect of the book, which was such an important part of the story!

  4. aartichapati says:

    I admit I was not very interested when I saw this story is about a saint, but you got my attention at the comparison to King Hereafter!

    • Helen says:

      I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a book about a saint either but I’m glad I decided to read this one. I thought there were a lot of similarities with King Hereafter…the early medieval setting and also the same sort of complex, cryptic writing style.

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