2013’s Hild is the first volume in Nicola Griffith’s Light of the World historical series.
Hild is the second daughter of Prince Hereric Yffing. Alas, Hereric was Hereric the Hapless. He was deposed, exiled, and poisoned, leaving his widow and children in an awkward position. Their existence makes them a potential threat to the ruler who deposed and exiled the former king: Edwin Snakebeard. Hild’s uncle.
Flight would be a chancy strategy. Hild chooses to submit to the new king and make herself useful. Young Hild becomes the king’s seer.
Edwin Snakebeard is superstitious and sees omens and portents all around him. Hild isn’t superstitious; she’s observant. She can make canny predictions as to the course of events, then present her predictions as prophecy. She’s also canny enough to be right. The stakes are high. Seers who fail their king do not enjoy well-funded happy retirements.
Hild is also well trained in all the standard housewifely accomplishments, a fact that increases her stature in the royal household. This isn’t enough to make her feel secure. As a woman, she is unarmed and vulnerable. Just to be sure, she secretly takes up the sword.
Is this enough? No. Seventh century Britain was in turmoil, torn between ambitious kings and encroaching alien creeds.
This chaos is seen as opportunity by the quick-witted and violent. Edwin has ambitions to defeat his rivals and expand his realm. So do his rivals. Result: endless wars, sudden reversals of fortune.
Hild must find a path through this chaos, if she is to find safety for herself and those she loves.
Imagine the rulers of Britain as lobsters in a pot, dragging down any who rise too far, and you won’t be too far off. Reading
British history can really make one appreciate the efforts of ice-sheets to provide the world with a bit of peace and quiet by scraping the squabbling primates off the land and into the sea,
This is a very Nicola Griffith novel, not least in its focus on someone from the upper levels of society. In this case, this is because Griffith is drawing on the life of a historical figure, St. Hilda. History tends not to mention the small folk except as they figure into the lives of the significant. Even in St. Hilda’s case, not much is known about her, leaving the author ample leeway to fill in all the blanks. Did Hild’s life play out as Griffith has it? Probably not but proving that would be a challenge.
As one would expect, the novel is beautifully written, and successfully evokes an era probably everyone else will enjoy more than I do (cheering as I do for Team Neo-Cryogenian). It is however the first volume in a series as yet innocent of further volumes; the narrative stops when the book runs out of pages, rather than the natural stopping point for a story like this (Hilda’s eventual death). In fact, she’s barely on the path to becoming an abbess1 when the novel finishes. Further volumes are necessary.
1: That this book would end with the deaths of some Hilda-adjacent monarch would seem a natural move. That’s not how this book does it. King Edwin died at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, which occurs after the date of the novel’s ending. My apologies to everyone for whom the impending death of an seventh century ruler is a spoiler.