Nicola Griffith’s new novel Hild is bound to draw comparisons to Wolf Hall. It’s a thick, engrossing novel of political machinations and intrigue, historical detail and rich language. Like Wolf Hall, it’s the sort of thing to make you miss a stop on the train, or forget to start dinner cooking, or stay up just a little longer, to stay in the world it spins around you.
But it’s still a different beast. The world it inhabits, the language, and the story itself are less cerebral, earthier, bloodier, more pagan.
And less familiar. Just about everyone knows the story of Henry VIII, and there’s that handy mnemonic to count off his wives: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
Fewer people know much about the 7th-century kingdom of Elmet or the feats of Æthelfrith or Edwin of Northumbria. There’s a family tree at the beginning and a glossary of old English words at the back of the book, which is handy when you need to distinguish a theign from a gesith. But I still wound up going to dictionaries and Wikipedia for words like freemartin and leveret and details about the locations and histories of post-Roman kingdoms near York.
Hild is set at a key point in history: Rome as an empire has fallen, the pagan kings are beginning to convert to Christianity, and trade networks are growing again. At one point, the young Hild comes to a market town for the first time in her life, and realizes that coinage can be far superior to barter, and that things like swords and slaves can be bought rather than won in battle or given as tribute. At another, someone is amazed at the idea of putting a piece of glass in a wall to let in light. Throughout the book, the use of written messages represents a huge technological leap for spycraft and espionage.
The novel begins when Hild is just four, and follows her as she grows up to become a seer and adviser to King Edwin. It ends well before she becomes the abbess known later as St. Hilda of Whidby. That leaves plenty of time for geomancy, theology, medieval economics, weaving, embroidery, sex, swordplay, battle songs, interrogation, political wrangling, poison, prophecy, slave-holding, and a great deal of mead-drinking.