REVIEW: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Nicola Griffith’s Hild has deservedly become a classic of its genre. Published 2013, this historical novel is based on the early life of Hild of Whitby, a seventh-century saint and abbess of the monastery of Whitby, mainly known thanks to the work of the Venerable Bede in the eight century. I’d vaguely been aware of the book, but it was my love for Nicola Griffith’s Spear, a brilliant Arthurian novella published earlier this year (my book of 2022 as per this roundup, and you can read my full review of it here) that made me pull the trigger and dive in. And just in time – 2023 will see the publication of Menewood, an immediate sequel to Hild, and I for one am excited.

Cover of Hild by Nicola GriffithThe story of Hild follows the titular character as she finds herself as a seeress to the king of Northumbria, her uncle. It is the story of a remarkable woman in a time when not much is know about many individual women. She is intelligent, calculating, ambitious and in many ways not an easy person to be around. Tall and unusual, many of those she encounters consider her to be almost supernatural, wondering whether she may be fae rather than human. And this is a story that is driven by Hild. It hangs and falls on the strength and complexity of her character – while there are many that take on important supporting roles, it is always clear that those are exactly that: supporting roles. It is Hild’s story, and even the king is ultimately a guest in it.

While it is clear that Griffith’s writing has evolved in the decade since the publication of Hild, it is already one of her strengths here. Evocative, atmospheric and at times poetic, it underlines the world created by her characters. It is not overly ornate, sometimes even sparse, interspersed with archaic terms to support immersion. The language doesn’t fully read as modern English, in a good way. This nicely leads me to the world-building. The care taken by Griffith in her research soon becomes obvious to the reader, and while this isn’t a history book, it is a novel rooted in detail. Tiny bits of trivia, facts and historical colour are sprinkled into the story to create a vivid picture of early medieval Britain. It isn’t a world that feels overwhelmed by its history, but one richer for it – I can see many of the strengths of Spear in Hild, with a clear line of evolution in craft. And to me, that is one of the most magical things about fiction.

As a whole, Hild is a fairly slow story, driven by characters and their actions, but one with much to appeal to a grimdark audience. The seventh century Britain it evokes isn’t far from that often seen in a traditional grimdark fantasy – and while there isn’t truly magic, there is betrayal and misfortune, complex characters and decisions and compelling political machinations. It is also a sapphic story, ahead of its time at publication – Hild reads like a book that fits in with current publishing trends and holds up amazingly well. In an age where books like The Unbroken, The Jasmine Throne and Sistersong succeed, Hild should be present on bookshelves alongside them. An underrated gem that deserves another life on bookshelves.

Read Hild by Nicola Griffith

Share this
Tags:
Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.