HILD, by Nicola Griffith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 546 pp., $27.
Steeping us in the taste of seventh century England's mead, the weight and warmth of its gorgeously woven and embroidered fabrics, and the myriad sights, sounds and scents of long ago, writer Nicola Griffith has created a marvel and a joy.
"Hild," the sixth novel from this multiple award-winner, takes place far from her previous works' alien, futuristic or contemporary settings. Yet, through Griffith's seemingly effortless prose, the forts, farms, woods and battlefields of medieval Northumbria become deeply real to readers -- though never completely comfortable.
"Hild's" eponymous heroine, based on a real-life medieval British saint, first appears as a 3-year-old exile. While playing with her bastard half-brother, she receives news of their royal father's murder. Savage politics send her and her widowed mother running for safety to the arms of the uncle who usurped the father's throne. For the rest of her childhood and on into adolescence, Hild serves her uncle as a seer: predicting natural disasters, forecasting the outcomes of raids, cutting to the hearts of the conspiracies surrounding this arch-conspirator.
How? By watching. By listening. "Quiet mouth, bright mind," her mother repeatedly tells her. Comparing the behavior of rooks and foxes to the doings of courtiers, queens, warriors and rivals, Hild learns how to spot patterns developing, how to follow them to their likely conclusions, and eventually, how to shape them to her own ends.
Extraordinary as Hild is, Griffith avoids a trap common to authors depicting strong female characters who live in cultures based on traditional gender roles: showing them rejecting all that is labeled as feminine. Though she coaxes her half-brother into secretly teaching her to defend herself against an armed man, she also studies spinning, dyeing, brewing and healing -- "women's work." She identifies as a woman, albeit an unusual one.
"Hild" is filled with matter-of-fact accounts of the life of the past. Some are disturbing: routine death in childbirth, the shocking brutality of combat wounds -- guts on the ground, yellow fat and red bones disappearing in a welter of blood. Some are surprising challenges to our modern take on medieval history, such as the presence of blacks in European trading towns and ecclesiastical missions.
But it's the book's sheer beauty that will most astonish readers. As Hild rushes to rescue her now-grown half-brother and his wife, she envisions herself as a hawk swooping to kill his pursuers. "Waking and sleeping alike were one thing of hollowing air and falling." Sharp as steel, clear as garnet, Griffith's telling of Hild's adventures offers us something far better than mere comfort: the lure of the sublime.