Little is known about the girl who would eventually come to be known as St. Hilda of Whitby: she was born in 614 A.D., baptised in 627, disappeared from written record, and reappeared 20 years later and became a powerful political advisor and teacher.
Hild is author Nicola Griffith’s attempts to fill in the historical gaps, to describe hypothetical circumstances that could have contributed to Hild’s growth as an advisor. The book also provides a detailed look at what seventh century life was like in Britain, particularly for women. It’s the first in what I’m sure will become a popular epic saga.
I love historical fiction, especially when it focuses on women who end up being the power behind the throne. And I tried so hard to like Hild. But in the end, it felt like 536 pages of…mush.
There’s a map provided, but the author doesn’t provide any historical context as to who all these warring factions are. No toddler — even in medieval times — would be as mature as Griffith portrays Hild in the first several chapters. There are dozens of characters, many of whom disappear and reappear at random, and all with names that are impossible to keep straight. Hild is married to a man for political reasons that aren’t fully explained, but she’s also got a weird quasi-homosexual relationship with one of her servants (that’s also never explained). They’re all squabbling over land and religion, and I just couldn’t care less.
I should have known better — I never enjoy a book that critics describe as “lush,” “sweeping,” or “absorbing.” It all just winds up feeling pretentious.
A polarizing read
Normally I don’t pay much attention to what other bloggers think of a particular book, but in this case I checked out the Goodreads reviews to see if I was missing something — is Hild great and I’m just uncultured swine?
Turns out it’s a mixed bag: overall the book has a four star rating. Lots of people disliked it for the same reasons I did, and lots of other people loved its “sweeping” saga-like feel.
Who edited this?
In typical “I’m-a-blogger-and-am-giving-suggestions-for-improvement-despite-having-no-real-world-novel-writing-experience” fashion, I think there’s two things the publisher could have done to make Hild an easier read.
Give context up front
It’s not until the afterword that the reader learns anything about the real Hild. Why couldn’t the editor/publisher have put that information at the beginning of the novel, so the reader has some idea of real-world context? If we know as little about Hild as the author says, it should be easy to include a Wikipedia-like entry at the beginning.
Get thee to an editor!
Much like Kathy Reich’s Déjà Dead and Katia Fox’s The Copper Sign, Hild falls prey to the “Include ALL the information” problem. It’s clear Griffith did a lot of research on Hild and the world/time in which she lived, but a good editor probably could have knocked out 50-100 pages of useless info without compromising the story. That “kill your darlings” advice applies to more than just characters.
Hild is my least favorite read of the first half of 2015. It’s confusing and dull, and I don’t care about any of the characters or the political machinations Griffith describes in mind-numbing detail. I’m glad other people enjoyed it, but this is one I’d toss back.
(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. July’s challenge was to read a book in which the main character stands up for themselves, against an enemy, or for something they believe in.)