There is a huge number of authors worthy reading and I always try to grab not only new ones but also touch those that were around since like forever. Nicola Griffith has been this year’s discovery for me, having found her work through Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. Yes, I’ve read one short story – 2014’s Cold Wind (review) – by her before. But other than that, she stayed under my radar. Until I went for her first novel Ammonite (review) from 1992, which is a great planetary romance, and that was when I fell in love with Griffith’s literary style. It isn’t often that I read two books from the same author within a year (other than series reads). It takes a dedicated effort to not get distracted by other shiny books around the corner, but here we go:
My second novel from Griffith is totally different than SF Ammonite. It is a Historical Fiction set in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England just on the brink between paganism and Christianization, featuring the coming of age of half-orphan Hild who will become an import abbess and saint. The historical person’s fate is not yet uncovered in this novel, as it is only the first book of a planned trilogy “Light of the World”.
You don’t want to start unfinished trilogy’s? Then you might want to skip reading this one, because the second book “Menewood” is kind of finished but won’t appear until 2023, as I’ve learned from the author’s blog.
Now, you have to know that I’ve got a certain connection to that time: Saint Boniface was born a generation later in England, a leading figure in German Christianization, and his grave is in my home town Fulda. He’s a very important figure, here with veneration and pilgrimage every year. That’s why I’m very interested how the situation in England was just before he was born.
The novel dives in deep in that regard. I’ve seldom read a more immersive, detail-focused historical fiction than this. Some people told me that it’s far too many details, but I just loved it, though it wasn’t exactly a page-turner or easy reading.
There’s a lot of politic maneuvering in it, often initiated by Hild’s clever mother. She became a part of her uncle Edwin’s court in Northumbria, serving as prophetess. That sounds influential, but is also highly dangerous, or even lethal, should her prophecies ever fail. That sounds like fantasy stuff, but Hild explains her prophecies more rational:
“I’m not a seer, either. I just notice things”
On the other hand, she feels the presence of the Christian priests’ Satan in one scene. Hild is torn between the mystical and the logical world. There is never evidence of anything supernatural. Often enough, seemingly supernatural prophecies are resolved by the protagonist’s logical deductions leading to exploiting of the peoples’ beliefs in the uncanny and yet another political intrigue. It is just another tool for Hild and her mother to survive.
She’s following the king’s court’s inherent rhythm, churning butter, moving from town to town, through weaving and harvesting to warfare campaigns. The whole court is baptized only later on together with the king.
Would you ever read a saint’s life written by a pious monk? I wouldn’t touch that with a long stick. It’s such a blessing that the author is exactly the contrary what one would suspect: non-Christian, lesbian, an important figure in the LGBT community with multiple Lambda Awards. There is a slight touch of lesbian scenes, but Hild never becomes queer. Comparing to Beowulf’s men-focused traditional machismos, this was always tasteful and fitting to the world. Thinking about that, the Christian priests seem more queer than those lesbian scenes: men in skirts, never wielding a blade but reading books.
This is no easy read at all. Staying true to her mission for full immersion into the 7th century, Griffith uses a lot of foreign terms like “wealh”, “wight”, or “wyrd”, ending in a glossary of terms that I had to consult. Some observations about this multi-lingual world touched my linguistic nerve:
[… Anglisc voices:] words drumming like apples spilt 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 uses fitting languages for different purposes – speak impressively or think of concepts. Language shapes thoughts, yay! (at least to a small extend).
The amount of details and focus on political intrigues makes a slower read, although there are enough action scenes. Also, there isn’t a plot line to speak of but more a series of events. I don’t know how I became to love reading scene after scene without a red thread, and I could imagine that many readers would be turned away just because of this.
It’s difficult to recommend this book, because it very well could be the ultimately enjoyable novel for you or go the other way round, more than with other books. In my case, I only can say: What a beautiful, exotic, wild world, what a fierce, brilliant character, what a gorgeous prose!
I can’t wait for the second novel Menegroth, but first her novella Spear (Hild with magic!).