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Book Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

I mentioned in a recent meta-post that I’m having trouble these days with evaluating books separate from the buzz I hear about those books in advance of reading them. So this is a review in two (or more) parts: a review of the book itself, and a review of my reaction and response to the book buzz (which, of course, the author is not at all responsible for).

For those not familiar with it, Hild is a fictionalized treatment of the life of the girl who would become the 7th century Saint Hilda of Whitby, written by SFF author Nicola Griffith. It’s a very heavily fictionalized treatment because the facts about Saint Hilda’s life are scanty and distorted by hagiography, and the facts about the culture she lived in are rather skeletal as well. Yet the subject is no more heavily fictionalized than a novel about, say, King Arthur would be (and there have been no end of those). The story covers Hild's girlhood up through coming of age and there are plans for one or more sequels to cover her adulthood.

The fractal detail of the setting (7th century north of Britain, with the complex mixture of ethnicities, cultures, and religions inherent in that time and place) is like a long slow walk through a landscape when you have no particular place you need to be. The everyday details of life and the complex maneuverings of both the micro- and macro-politics of the time are painted in vivid detail with carefully researched accuracy. I suspect I'm reading a different book than most people are. A lot of the reviews I've read keep talking about the setting as the equivalent of an entirely invented secondary-world fantasy, but because of my own research interests it’s a setting I find familiar and comfortable. (“Comfortable” as a reader – not as a potential time to live!) When a character quotes from the heroic verses of the Gododdin…I’ve read those, in the oldest surviving versions. When the characters interact over the never-ending work of textile production…I’ve made those things; I know how long you have to spin and weave to create a single garment. When the unfamiliar names fly thick and fast…I’ve researched those names, written articles on them, and don’t stumble over the difference between Aethelfrith, Eanfrith, and Eanflaed. I don’t find all this exotic is what I’m trying to say, I guess. That could be a hazard, in terms of enjoying the story, but because of how well the setting was handled, it was an enhancement. It made me strongly appreciative of exactly how much work Griffith has done to create this world, and to elaborate the bare skeleton in a way that is both not-inconsistent-with-known-fact and fascinating to read. (No “researcher’s disease” here – the details are integrated seamlessly into the story.)

Reading Hild is like a long slow walk through a gorgeous richly-detailed landscape…but it’s a winding, rambling path that is much more about the journey than the destination. While many events occur along the way, there isn’t really a big over-arching plot-structure. There are very long stretches where it feels like nothing much happens. This is, of course, the nature of biographic writing. (Except when the biographer decides to impose teleology on the subject.) And Hild is, in the final analysis, a fictionalized biography of a woman whose most memorable life events are yet to occur.

In meta-analysis, it’s fascinating that the book is being framed and marketed as a work of speculative fiction when there are no fantastic elements at all. I was going to speculate on this feature, but fortunately the need to do so is eliminated by Griffith herself explaining exactly what my speculations had been:

* * *

My most recent novel, Hild, has no fantastical elements whatsoever. It's not set in a secondary world, there are no dragons, no wizards casting spells, no special swords or magic rings. Yet the book has been nominated for three SF awards. Why?

Perhaps it's because I'm a native of SF and it shows: Hild might be a literary novel but it speaks with a fantasy accent and uses the grammar of science fiction. It relies on world-building, the grand "What if...?" learnt reading and writing SF. More than that, it relies on readers being willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown—the ability to take odd spellings, strange names, unfamiliar concepts in stride, to risk just going with the flow and trust it'll make sense eventually—that is one of the mainstays of our genre.

* * *

That takes care of the first item on my “review of the buzz” list. The second item is the promotion of Hild as some sort of ground-breaking queer character. To be sure, the not-quite-yet-Christian culture that Hild is living in doesn’t yet have some of the odd hang-ups about sex that would later develop, and Hild doesn’t only have a wealth of strong, supportive emotional relationships with the women around her, but also has sexual encounters with women as well as men, and experiences desire for both. This is, however, a relatively minor aspect of the text (given that she’s pre-pubescent for the majority of the book!) and her sexual experiences with women are presented as more of the hormone-driven itch-scratching sort than as something deep and lasting. So to me the elevation of Hild as a paragon of queer fiction (as evidence I note it was the subject of one of Tor.com’s Queering SFF Pride Month reviews, and features heavily in Worlds Without End’s Roll-Your-Own LGBT Speculative Fiction Challenge, and so forth) is a bit jarring. For me, wanting LGBTQ fiction and being handed Hild is like showing up for a banquet and being handed a crust. Now, this isn’t the fault of the book or the author. The book is what it is and the amount and nature of sexual content is, in my opinion, exactly appropriate for the story. And it is nice to see historic sexuality treated in a way that doesn’t simply reflect later prejudices. But the buzz had built it up in my expectation that this was going to be a banquet, and it was a crust. And that’s one of the examples of why I’m having this love-hate relationship with reading books based on buzz, even the buzz of people I trust.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 8th, 2014 12:45 am (UTC)
I'm looking forward to the book, but haven't started it yet. St. Hild was a character in my first published story, so I know a teensy amount about her. I hope I like Nicola's book.
Aug. 8th, 2014 01:07 am (UTC)
I am so glad to read this review. I'm a long time sff fan, who happens to have done most of my graduate work researching Anglo Saxon women religious (special emphasis on the political aspects of virginity and celibacy).

So I was both tantalized and terrified to pick this up.

You've given me the courage to go for it; but I'll try and cleanse my brain of the hype before I do.
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:23 am (UTC)
I think it's likely that you will enjoy the book very much. The handling of the religious complexities of the era felt very solid to me (though religious history is not one of my specialties).
Aug. 8th, 2014 01:35 pm (UTC)
Over-hype is why I have stayed away from a lot of nominally queer fiction, because it seems like any work that even vaguely mentions a same-sex kiss gets exploded all out of proportion to what's actually in the book.
Aug. 8th, 2014 03:52 pm (UTC)
With the acknowledgment that I do have a dog in the fight, when readers ask for recommendations of good LGBTQ SFF, I could wish that the folks who recommend very marginal examples such as this (or always recommend the same 3-4 authors) would look a little farther outside their boxes. Based on what we see being published, mainstream publisher are still very hesitant to support queer characters beyond a token level (either the occasional token book, or the token characteristic/action of a character), and yet I keep running into the wall that SFF readers and reviewers are hesitant to look at the books from queer publishers. I've been outright told that my book can't be SFF because it's from a lesbian publisher and therefore it can only be considered romance.
Aug. 8th, 2014 02:58 pm (UTC)
I hate to say this, but I got very impatient with the book's lack of plot. I found it a long slog and probably won't be reading any sequels unless they have something more exciting happen. (Like you, I did find the world-building interesting and not unfamiliar.)

I do have a minor gripe, although it's probably more about me than about the book. In a lot of recent fiction, I find it annoying that *nobody* is a virgin any more. I'm willing to grant there was probably more sex happening than we used to think (which was based on taking literally the rhetoric of ideals) but the symbolic significance of celibacy had to come from *some*where, which means some real people must have believed in and practiced it.
Aug. 8th, 2014 03:55 pm (UTC)
My reading habits these days are being affected by my using gym time to read on the iPad. Multi-tasking like that means that I'm more willing to give things a full try.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )