by Nicola Griffith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pp., $27
Steeping us in the taste of seventh-century England’s mead, the weight and warmth of its gorgeously woven and embroidered fabrics, and the myriad sights, sounds and scents of long ago, Seattle writer Nicola Griffith has created a marvel and a joy.
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“Hild,” the newest novel from this multiple award-winning author, takes place far from her works’ previous settings: the future, an alien planet, or, in the case of her popular mystery series (“The Blue Place,” “Stay,” “Always”), contemporary Atlanta and Seattle. Historical fiction is new territory for Griffith. Yet through her seemingly effortless prose the forts, farms, woods and battlefields of medieval Northumbria become deeply real to readers. Though never completely comfortable.
“Hild’s” eponymous heroine, based on a real-life medieval British saint, first appears as a 3-year-old exile. While playing with her bastard half-brother, she receives news of their royal father’s murder. Savage politics send her and her widowed mother running for safety to the arms of the uncle who usurped the father’s throne. For the rest of her childhood and on into adolescence, Hild serves her uncle as a seer: predicting natural disasters, forecasting the outcomes of raids, cutting to the hearts of the conspiracies surrounding this arch-conspirator.
How? By watching. By listening. “Quiet mouth, bright mind,” her mother repeatedly tells her. Comparing the behavior of rooks and foxes to the doings of courtiers, queens, warriors and rivals, Hild learns how to spot patterns developing, how to follow them to their likely conclusions, and eventually, how to shape them to her own ends.
Extraordinary as Hild is, Griffith avoids a trap common to authors depicting strong female characters who live in cultures based on traditional gender roles: showing them rejecting all that is labeled as feminine. Though she loves the solitude of the wild, Hild also wants to be part of the community of women; though she coaxes her half-brother into secretly teaching her to defend herself against an armed man, she also studies spinning, dyeing, brewing and healing: “women’s work.” She yearns to be paired with a “gemaecce” (yeh-MATCH-eh, according to “Hild’s” pronunciation guide), a sort of official, early Saxon Best Friend Forever. She’s jealous of her older sister’s veil and spindle, marks of maturity. She identifies as a woman, albeit an unusual one. Confronted with the burgeoning Christian church’s distaste for her prophesying, she wonders why there are no female priests. But she accepts that there aren’t, accepts that it’s her fate to be at odds with the faith she pragmatically adopts, and moves on.
“Hild” is filled with matter-of-fact accounts of the life of the past. Some are disturbing: the routine prevalence of death in childbirth; the shocking brutality of combat wounds — guts on the ground, yellow fat and red bones disappearing in a welter of blood. Some are surprising challenges to our modern take on medieval history, such as the presence of blacks in European trading towns and ecclesiastical missions.
But it’s the book’s sheer beauty that will most astonish readers. As Hild rushes to rescue her now-grown half-brother and his wife, she envisions herself as a hawk stooping to kill his pursuers. “Waking and sleeping alike were one thing of hollowing air and falling.” Sharp as steel, clear as garnet, essential and sensual and right, Griffith’s telling of Hild’s adventures offers us something far better than mere comfort: the lure of the sublime.
Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy for The Seattle Times. She is the editor, with Rebecca Holden, of “Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler” (Aqueduct Press).