Sunday 3 May 2015

REVIEW: HILD by Nicola Griffith

HildHild by Nicola Griffith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the last few years, I have been immersed in the history of early seventh century Britain. As I've researched and written my own books set in this time period, I have read a lot of non-fiction about it.

It is a period that is not that popular with novelists, but of course, I find myself drawn to the novels that are set in the same time and place as my own. One such book is Hild, by Nicola Griffith. I first found out about the novel whilst researching for The Serpent Sword about three years ago. Griffith has a blog where she discusses her writing and she was posing many of the same questions I found myself asking. Questions about language, beliefs, appropriate metaphors for the time, and more prosaic things like, where did people sleep?

For an author, setting your story in what is often called the Dark Ages, gives you a huge amount of scope. There are many gaps in the historic records, so you can use your imagination, and also, most readers don't know much about the period. The downside to this is that there are relatively scant resources for facts about historical figures. So, if you have read a lot about the royal and ecclesiastical characters of the time, you pretty much know what is going to happen to them in a historical novel that focuses on famous people.

For this reason, having most of the main characters of Hild (and of course, the protagonist herself) be real historical figures, did remove some of the tension that could have been there, if the characters were fictional. This will not be an issue with most readers, but I knew the fate of most of the main characters from the beginning.

Having said that, Griffith's writing is so powerful, so rich and languidly effortless at times, that I found the book often difficult to put down. She has a way with words that most writers would kill for, even if at times, she does seem to revel slightly too much in the arcane names of people and places, making some paragraphs a struggle.

The character of Hild is a strong and ever-present force in the novel as it tracks her early life. I found her believable and likable, even though I did think that some of the situations and roles Griffiths had her excel in seemed a little post-modern revisionist. I know Hild was a strong female character, but I do not believe that the male-oriented, warlike society of the Anglo-Saxons, would defer to a young girl in battle, even if they believed her a haegtes, or seer. Of course, that is merely my opinion. I was not there, and it certainly makes for a good story. And I think that is where the real strength of Hild, the novel, lies. It is based on real events, but with a world that is painted with enough depth and detail around the bones of the history to seem wholly real. In this, it has many of the traits of a great fantasy novel, and I can see why it has been compared to Game of Thrones. The world-building is excellent and the reader wants to know what happens to these characters. In my case, the ending was less satisfying than it would have been if I had not known the history, but I look forward to the sequel that I know Griffith is writing. If she can pull off another novel as laden with poignancy and a sense of time and place, it will be a must read.

4.5 Stars

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