Hild by Nicola Griffith

Sometimes you take a bite of a treat expecting one flavor, and find yourself savoring something entirely different but nonetheless delicious. This was my experience with Hild by Nicola Griffith. I picked up the book thinking it was a fantasy novel, relying solely on a friend’s recommendation and a Nebula nomination to guide my choice. But instead of fantasy, I found a rich bildungsroman firmly rooted in history, where magic mixes with religion in a way that is real to the characters, if not to a cynical modern reader.

I was put off at first by the youth of the character; for a three-year-old, Hild seemed perhaps too shrewd and observant, if not entirely at ease in a setting that is simultaneously bucolic and politically dangerous. But having started where it did, the novel compels the reader to track the growth of the character in what sometimes feels like real-time, each seminal event in her life carefully buttressed by what came before. It’s like watching a medieval cathedral being assembled stone by stone, painstakingly, with beautiful results.

Almost more than the plot of the story, the characters and their relationships are what propel the reader forward. I wanted to know how each of the players would grow and change, come together or move apart. I worried about what would happen to them, in no small part because I had seen them as children, and who wants to see a child come to harm? And when they do, as we all must, it’s heartbreaking.

At the center of this, Hild herself is a compelling heroine. At times her agency is buried under the social conventions of the time, but her own role in the kingdom she inhabits is one that nonetheless gives her nearly unparalleled power. How she uses her keen mind to observe the world and manipulate others is amazing, yet because the reader is inside her head, it rarely feels unbelievable or unrealistic. The cathedral’s foundations are very carefully laid, indeed.

The language of the book is also beautiful, elegant without being purple. Hild’s interactions with the natural world are central to her character and the plot; vivid descriptions of her surroundings suffuse the novel without becoming overwhelming, or putting a drag on the pacing. However, it’s worth noting that this is definitely not a quick read, if my comparisons to construction didn’t make that clear. The story moves at a stately pace that may be frustrating to readers more interested in what happens next than why and how.

If you like historical fiction, lovely prose and carefully manicured political intrigue, you should give this book a try. If that isn’t your usual slice of cake, take a bite anyway; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a new favorite treat.

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