The exciting thing about a person like Saint Hilda of Whitby is that we know so little about her, so there’s lot of room for a historical fiction writer to simply make stuff up, which is exactly what Nicola Griffith admits that she’s done in this novel set in the seventh century at the court of Edwin of Northumbria.
The novel focuses on Hild’s early years, about which almost nothing is known. She becomes part of her uncle Edwin’s court when her father is poisoned. Early on and despite being quite young and a girl, she establishes herself as the “light of the world,” a wise seer and important adviser. As she grows to adulthood, she learns to use her wisdom to keep herself and those around her safe, to build a household, and to achieve a place of power. By the end, she’s gained the one thing she most dreamed of, but refused to acknowledge because it was impossible, forbidden, the cost too high. And we’re left wondering what will happen next.
Much like the novels of Dorothy Dunnett, especially King Hereafter, this novel does not do much to orient readers to the world. There’s a family tree and a map, there are a lot of people with similar names (Osric, Oswine, Osfrith, and Onnen, AEthelric, AEthelburh, AEthelfrith, and AEthelric), and lots of places I’m not familiar with. It took me a while to get a handle on which characters I needed to remember and which ones I’d have to just let go for this first reading. But once I had a sense of Hild, her childhood companion Cian, her sworn best friend Begu, the enslaved Gwladus, and a few others, I started to sink into the book a little better. It was, however, a slow read, as I had to go back and reread bits to grasp what was happening.
The novel depicts a land in transition. There are many kings, and alliances between them come and go, with Edwin remaining overking of the Anglisc. The Christians are gaining power, and their God will not be worshiped alongside Woden. And, with their education and ability to write, their power seems useful. When Edwin’s court, including Hild, is baptized, it is as much about politics as about spirituality. Only a few characters seem to treat their religion as a matter of spiritual and moral practice, and it doesn’t necessarily go well for them.
One of the more interesting, and sometimes disturbing, threads throughout the book involves the relationships between the characters. Hild’s world is violent, and the threat of death is always real. When people go away and when women go into labor and when the winter comes, survival is not assumed. When Hild’s sister marries and goes away, Hild never stops fretting over her. Whenever Cian goes out to a battle, Hild worries. When Hild herself is out to protect the kingdom, she’s willing to kill if necessary to she believes it will protect her people.
And somehow this constant threat of death makes the relationships seem both more precious and more disposable. It starts with Hild’s mother, who sees her two daughters as avenues to power and security and trains them as such. If she loves them, that doesn’t enter into it. It may be oversimplifying to say that this is the reason Hild grows up insecure about others’ affections and the permanence of every relationship, but her relationship with her mother is never easy and comfort in love is always elusive for Hild.
Another uneasy relationship is between Hild and one of her most loyal companions, her enslaved bodywoman Gwladus, who always knows what her master needs, whether its food or sex or quiet, and she provides it without Hild ever having to ask. She’s essential to Hild’s happiness, yet she’s not there of her own free will, yet she’s better off and happier with Hild than she might be elsewhere. Still, it’s an uneasy relationship, and the book acknowledges that. (The book is refreshingly matter of fact about Hild’s sexuality. She’s attracted to women and to men, and that’s just how it is. Attraction is just a thing that happens, acting on it is where the risk may be.)
And then there’s Cian, her best friend and possible half-brother, the boy who taught her to fight with a staff and the man whose rise at court she supported. She’s constantly worried about him and occupied with how she could protect him. Her desire to protect him, even if it means keeping important secrets from him, is what leads to the book’s extremely ambiguous ending, one that is one part happy ever after and one part serious dread. It’s an ending that left me with a knot in my stomach and a desire for the next book in Griffith’s planned trilogy to come out right now.