Review: Hild

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I had a good personal recommendation, the blurbs were very impressive, and once I dipped into it, the writing was like music. But somewhere around the halfway mark, I had to start pushing myself to pick it up again, and the ending left me rather unsatisfied. I almost feel guilty about saying this, so many people are raving about it. But first things first.

Hild is a historical novel. It takes place in seventh century Britain, and covers the early life of the woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby. Historians know nothing of this stage of Hilda's life, leaving the field wide open for the author. She tells us the story of the niece of a powerful and rising king, one whose mother created a legend for her before she was born, and who has the gifts to grow into that legend. She is the king's seer, feared and honoured for her ability to see the future. In reality, she is an extraordinarily observant and intelligent child whose gift is more one of being able to connect the dots that no one else even notices. Britain is in the process of converting to Christianity, alliances are shifting, it is a complex and turbulent time. And a fascinating time, well-portrayed in the book.

So why did I not love it in the end? The prose is absolutely lovely, the characterization is rich and believable, the setting is lovingly rendered, so that you can almost smell the fields in spring. Nicola Griffith has done her research and brings the era to breathing, pulsing life. There are so many things that are right. Well, part of the problem was the historical accuracy, an overdose of historical accuracy. It was a complicated time. There were many petty kings with a complex and shifting web of alliances. Keeping track of all of them as Hild helped to steer her uncle through this maze made my head spin. I couldn't keep the names straight, much less why they mattered and what they were up to. Add to this the large number of secondary characters, and the family tree at the beginning was not adequate for this confused reader. We needed a two- or three-page cast of characters. If you are already knowledgeable about seventh-century Britain, you will have a very different reaction.

Secondly, and more important, was Hild herself and as a result how the story was constructed. For all her major role in shaping the events of her time, Hild was more reactive than proactive. Her only real goal was to ensure the survival of her family and loved ones in a perilous world. I was well past the halfway mark and I realized I had no idea what the book was aiming at, or what Hild herself was aiming at. She reacted to events and did so deftly, but her management style would have to be characterized as skilful muddling through. At the end, I was not sure if I could say she had succeeded because the terms for her success had never been defined. The story felt oddly directionless and ended more or less arbitrarily.

However, most of the incidents themselves were interesting, and the texture of the writing is lovely. If you like a long, meandering hike through the countryside, much like Hild herself, you could be one of the many people singing this book's praises. It is very good, but in my mind it is not great. Not quite Gourmet Reading status.

Nicola Griffith's website