Nicola Griffith is better known for her mystery and science fiction work, but Hild, her first work of historical fiction, may be her breakthrough. It illustrates the early life of St. Hilda, based on the skeletal information left by St. Bede and what must have been exhausting research into the era. It takes place in early 7th century England, starting when Hild (the Old English form of her name) is three and her father is poisoned. Hild's mother, Bregusewith, is a woman of fierce protectiveness and ambition. She joins the court of Edwin, her brother-in-law, and proceeds to weave plots to promote and advance her daughters. While her older sister is married off, Hild's uncanny ability to read nature and human beings leads her to the position of the king's seer. Being close to the king is a dangerous place to be as these are the Dark Ages, but being a royal niece has its perks. Hild learns arms training so that she can go with King Edwin on war parties (denfinitely not open to all women) and she grows in power and stature (literally) as she gets older. Hild also buys a slave, Gwladus, who becomes indispensable in intelligence-gathering and behaving like a seer, and who she later frees.
This is not a quick read, but you won't mind. What happens to Hild in the first seventeen years of her life more than fills up the pages, for which I am glad. Most books, fiction and nonfiction alike, give short shrift to a character's formative years, when that's what they are, formative to the adults those people become. Also, the descriptions of the physical environment, whether the king's hall or the coast of northeastern England, are spectacular. As I said before, the research that obviously went into this novel is gobsmacking: what they wore and how they wore it, what they ate and how it was cooked, how they fought and with what, it's all here. You will find yourself referring to the appendices in the back for pronunciation tips and definitions, but that's part of the immersive atmosphere. I definitely recommend this for a cold winter weekend. I am also eagerly anticipating to the sequel(s) promised by the author, as Hild lived to be 66.
Can't wait for the sequel? Here's more:
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The great grandmama of them all, a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend.
Illuminations byMary Sharratt. A fictionalized biography of Hildegard Von Bingen, who escaped being an anchorite to found two monastaries and was recently declared a Doctor of the Church.
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory. A commoner, Elizabeth, becomes queen of England and helps bring a brief peace during the War of the Roses. Written by one of the giants in modern historical fiction.