Hild, by Nicola Griffith

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 12 November 2013.

Nicola Griffith's Hild is set in the deepest part of the Dark Ages in a post-Roman but pre-Alfred Britain. There are almost as many kings and princes and kingdoms and territories as Germany in the nineteenth century. The book centers on Hild, an actual historic figure of the time. But because written records are scarce and archaeological evidence scarcer, Griffith has plenty of room for creativity.

Hild's Britain is full of conflict. Christianity is trying to muscle out the Norse and Celtic religions. Hild's uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, is trying to unite the various Anglisc (Anglo-Saxon) kingdoms under his rule. Her place in all this is fraught from the moment of her birth. Breguswith, Hild's mother, claimed to have a dream about her child being the "light of the world." Once Hild was born, Breguswith begins to train her daughter to be observant and quick witted. Above all, Hild is trained to be a "seer." As Hild plays the role, being a seer means building an intelligence network and interpreting natural phenomena as signs to manipulate King Edwin. Hild is never as ruthless as her mother, though she's far from gentle.

Hild is thrust into the adult world of politics and war at an incredibly young age. She rides into war as one of the king's councilors twice before the age of 13. Griffith's tale shows Hild growing to womanhood between the pressures of the king's demands and her mother's plots. It's hard for her to stand on her own for most of her teenage years, because she doesn't have her own agenda to stand for. When Edwin takes over the territory of Elmet, Hild begins to gather her own people. Having her own gesith (warriors) and wealh (peasants) to care for gives Hild something to protect. By the end of the book, Hild is prepared to ride into battle against bandits and arrange marriages to keep war from breaking out between the kingdoms again because Elmet would be caught in the middle and destroyed.

Though no one in the 600s could be said to have an easy life, Hild's youth is more fraught than most. Even as she becomes a deft and wise councilor, Hild is viewed with suspicion by nearly everyone around her. They find her uncanny because she doesn't talk much, because she spends too much time along, because she's an outsider to the usual order of things. The new Christian priests, especially Paulinus Crow, treat her almost as an enemy because of her gender and her unwillingness to submit to their orders.

Written history leaves so much out. Some of the tale was left out to concentrate on larger, more important events. I have to wonder how much was left out deliberately. The old saw is that history is written by the victors. But in this instance, history was written by the few people who knew how to write: the Christian monks and priests. Most of what we know from this time comes from sources like the Venerable Bede, who wrote decades or hundreds of years after the fact. I'm certainly not going to call Bede a liar, but how much of his history was spun to put a better face on things for the newly arrived Christians? After all, in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English, we know Hild as Saint Hilda of Whitby—not as the butcher-bird, witch, hægtes, councilor, and seer she is in this novel.

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