The cover of Hild (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) shows a woman in medieval chainmail, with large, serious eyes, painted with the same hues and patterns as the forest behind her. The effect is of someone emerging from a landscape, or being camouflaged by it. Ironically, that’s a relatively accurate account of the reader’s experience with this book. It is not the landscape that conceals the intriguing 7th century character of Hild, a woman who held an powerful place in Britain and the Church at a tumultuous time in history, but the details. Nicola Griffith, whose writing is absolutely luminous at times in this 560 page history lesson, dives too far into her treasure chest of research, filling the pages with so much information, it is hard to see the characters, let alone the plot. I was thankful Griffith included a glossary and pronunciation guide, but found myself wishing she had found a way to write Hild that didn’t necessitate the need for either of them.
With so little historical information surviving about her heroine, Griffith was free to make up the character of Hild, if not the facts. She chose to paint her as a cold, cautious, calculating woman. Unfortunately, as the main lens through which the story is told, the reader is left feeling that chill throughout the book. Hild was a long slog of a book that started slow, seemed to go nowhere, and ended with a whimper.
Truly, the cover may be the best part.
You may enjoy Hild if you are more a historian than reader of historical fiction. If you are looking for great, engaging historical fiction though, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. The novels of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy are amazing, with real, warm blooded characters. If you don’t mind a bit of fantasy with your fiction, try The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, or Mary Stewart’s Merlin Chronicles, both of which made me fall in love with the pre-Medieval days of Britain in the first place.