Andrew and I recently finished Nicola Griffith’s Hild. We shared are thoughts on the book in an email conversation.
Chris: Fiction about the Middle Ages can be a very mixed bag of idealized medievalisms and anachronistic pageantry. Knights gallivant across countrysides regardless of a historical tradition of chivalry in that country, dressed in armor shining bright despite the technology or preferred protection of the time. Honor and such are paramount. I love the Middle Ages, but reading historical fiction set in the time period can be a considerable chore given how many authors opt to write what feels medieval instead of what is medieval. Such is gloriously not the case with Hild.
Hild is a master class in narrative description and world-building. Griffith spent years researching life in 7th-century England and it shows from page one, immersing readers in such a wealth of detail that the rhythms and assumptions of a time 1,400 years ago become if not natural then at least understandable. Even languages are grounded in the concrete, being compared to apples and swiftly flowing rivers. The rich precision of each description illuminates a period known colloquially for its darkness, revealing the humanity found within.
The metaphors and the symbolism of the later chapters build off this description, creating a narrative system that rests entirely on its own medieval legs. That is the highest praise I can give a historical novel: the book turns a period alien and remote from our own into something familiar on its own terms, lending a deeper humanity to its characters because each decision they make makes perfect medieval sense.
Andrew: As a pure and simple narrative, Hild excels just as much, but in a different way than modern readers are used to. Instead of a cinematic, action-filled plot that moves naturally from point A to Z hitting every logical step in between (although there is plenty of action, including some of the most vividly rendered battle sequences one could ask for), Griffith writes with a style that represents the outlandish love child of Henry James and the writer of Beowulf.