Drink a cup of buttermilk, sleep on a mattress of horsehair and sweet gale, watch the dairy maids pour off pans of cream, learn the words gesith, aethling, gemaecca, wealh. Meet Hild, a real Dark Ages saint re-imagined by British writer Nicola Griffith as a player in the medieval island’s game of thrones, a child grown to young woman rendered in 536 densely beautiful pages of pristine period detail. A more perfect cup of witchery does not exist, for those of us who like historical romance but also have literary standards.
The author has said in interviews that it was her intent to write a strong female character in the seventh century who had freedom and agency—she believes such women existed, we just think they didn’t. She took the real story of a girl born to hardship, who rose to become an important figure in the church, and set out to understand how she could have gotten there, largely by building a world that made sense around her, and then filling the person into it.
The book is a spectacular accomplishment, and is totally immersive in the details of pre-modern life. Hild’s triumphs as a seer in a hostile king’s court are constructed so smoothly from fear, cunning and circumstance, that they’re as believable to us as they are to her. Griffith also finds convincing ways for Hild to partake in the culture of swords and war, while still being circumscribed as a woman would have been. The rise of the Christian church and driving out of the old gods (Woden!) is as frightening as it’s meant to be. And the character’s sexual awakening, incestuous love for a half-brother, and various accommodations with her slave handmaiden are a gift, coming from a writer with Griffith’s skill with metaphor. Skin is like the flesh of hazelnuts, hair like linden honey. These people, you want to see have sex.
There are so many beautiful descriptions of everything in this book, it’s hard to choose one to sum it up, but this is from page 5:
“She knew them by their thick woven cloaks, their hanging hair and beards, and their Anglisc voices: words drumming like apples split over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring. Like her father’s words, and her mother’s, and her sister’s. Utterly unlike Onnen’s otter-swift British or the dark liquid gleam of Irish. Hild spoke each to each. Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam.”
Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam. An amazing book.