Nicola Griffith's latest book Hild has all the ingredients of a fantasy novel, including a medieval setting and a main character with powers that seem supernatural. And yet it's also a brilliantly-researched work of historical fiction. Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.
Griffith is known for science fiction novels like Ammonite and the Nebula-winning Slow River, as well as a series of popular crime novels that begin with The Blue Place. In Hild, she's taken on a fascinating subject: St. Hilda, a British noblewoman who lived during the 600s CE and witnessed the rise of Christianity on the island that would one day be called Britain. In her later life, Hild (as she would have been known to contemporaries) became a famous abbess at Whitby, whose advice was sought by political and religious leaders. But we know almost nothing about her early life and young adulthood, before she became a nun. And that is the part of her life that Griffith explores.
By taking us back to the England of warring tribes where Hild came of age, Griffith is able to evoke a world so different from our own that it's almost alien. Though many of the place names are the same as they are today, the cultural geography was not. Hild is born into a pagan culture where she speaks a dialect called British (later she learns Anglisc and some Irish). Her father is the lord of his region, and is constantly brokering peace, trade, and warfare with his neighbors. In this world, kings need daughters as much as sons. A son can inherit the kingdom, but a king's daughter is a "peaceweaver" who can seal alliances between two kingdoms through marriage.
This is a world where women have power, but it's limited. When Hild's father dies, her mother has to figure out a way to make herself useful in the court of Hild's uncle, King Edwin — both for her own sake, and for little Hild and her sister. She does that by using her status as "seer," a kind of supernatural witch figure who advises the king based on visions. Her main vision, she tells the king, is that Hild is the most powerful seer ever born, and will help Edwin conquer many kingdoms. Early in the novel, it's not clear whether Hild and her mother actually have uncanny powers, but as the story develops we realize that the answer is far more interesting than a simple "yes" or "no."
As Hild grows up, she becomes keen observer of human character and a savvy political strategist. Though at first her insights feel almost like visions, she quickly realizes that they are the result of figuring out what people at court are trying to get from one another — and, on a broader scale, what the likely political future of Britain might be. She views the arrival of Christianity the same way she views the arrival of people representing Irish tribes. They are political powers, part of the great pattern of relationships that stretch from the British Isles all the way to Rome.
Indeed, Hild's "conversion" to Catholicism, in Griffith's telling of the story, has nothing to do with God at all. Hild realizes that priests are the only people who are literate, and figures out that the ability to send written letters between kingdoms is a revolutionary innovation. Being able to exchange written notes allows her to anticipate which sides her fellow nobles will choose in battle — and, perhaps more importantly, allow her kingdom to participate long-distance trade. So she allies herself with the Church, because its representatives are in a position to aid her court economically and strategically.
Hild's supposed supernatural power and holiness are just the outward trappings of her political savvy. As I said earlier, this is a fantasy novel that is skeptical about the fantastic. But that skepticism becomes part of the joy of reading this book, which demystifies historical developments without robbing them of the magic that people would have seen at the time they unfolded.
One of the greatest aspects of the book is simply the raw, epic fun of following the adventures of a fierce young woman who can fight battles alongside the men because she's so tall and strong. Hild slaughters enemies, she takes a beautiful and troubled lover, and she discovers the wonders of friendship with her "gemaecce" Begu. (During this period in history, it was common for noblewomen to name one close woman friend as a gemaecce, a kind of formalized BFF who would always stay by her side.) There are terrific war scenes, which are equal parts horrifying and exhilarating. But Griffith also brings to life the world of medieval women, struggling to survive battles with childbirth while constantly questing to make their kingdoms' farms productive.
Perhaps Hild's greatest superpower, other than her Sherlock-like ability to read people, is moving between the world of men and women. She alone can do that. Griffith seems to suggest that this ability to move between worlds is part of what allows Hild to thrive at a time when the world of pagan tribal homesteads was transitioning into a world of Christianized, international commerce.
By the time you've finished this engaging, absorbing novel, you'll feel like you understand the political machinery moving beneath the hide of history. And the great St. Hilda will have come to life in your mind, not as a blessed Saint, but as a real human being with decidedly secular talents. This is one of the truly great novels of the past year. Griffith will seduce you with her lush, fantasy-epic prose, and keep you mesmerized with her well-wrought tale of state-building in an age of superstition.