I finally finished reading Hild by Nicola Griffith (which I started in September, but then had to put it down until Thanksgiving; since then I've been reading it on Saturdays when I really ought to be doing work). I enjoyed it - although the pause in the middle wasn't great; it was hard to keep the politics straight and I kept getting my Eadfriths and Osfriths and Osrics confused. I especially liked that this was a story set in the seventh century that didn't just shrug and go, "well, ladies had no rights or power then, am I right; who'd want to hear about that? Bring on the dudes!" which is the kind of thing that drove me crazy (along with, it is true, everything else) in The Tudors. As a seer, Hild is extraordinary, and she does have a lot more access to the World of Men (™) than most women - but the novel nevertheless recognizes the power and importance - or, for those women who are not influential, even just the real and rounded existence - that other women have, rather than doing that obnoxious thing where the historical heroine does nothing but chafe against the restrictions of the female world, and want to spend all of her time with men. It is true that there are restrictions, and those aren't downplayed - Hild's sister, Hereswith, for example, is married off as "peaceweaver" without so much as a by-your-leave, even though her husband-to-be has a woman and children that he refuses to set aside even after the marriage. But Hild also learns much of her political savvy from her mother, Breguswith, who has been grooming her since she was a child. She forms relationships and alliances with queens as well as kings, and recognizes that perfume - when it's a recognizable scent given by the queen, as a mark of her favor - can be just as important as carrying the king's token. She thinks about "soft power," about winning over people with food and gifts, as well as carrying a weapon into battle. (As seer, Hild winds up at a lot of battles and does have to protect herself and even kill, although she is not a Warrior Maiden (™) as such.) The novel is full of daily, "domestic" life just as much as war: the rhythms of weaving and herb gathering, cheese making and child minding, are all important in this book. And there is even a character of color, a deacon named James who comes to the king's court as part of the retinue of the king's new, Christian, wife Aethelburh; he doesn't have a huge role, but he becomes one of the people Hild turns to for advice and comfort, and he adds some welcome lightness to the book as the choir director who cares passionately about something that isn't battle and power.
The book is the first of a trilogy, according to the author, although nothing about the book itself makes that explicit before you start reading it, and then realize that you are definitely going to run out of pages before Hild - who is the woman who eventually is known as Saint Hilda of Whitby - runs out of life. The book does not at all get you to the point where Hild goes from being "pagan" seer to Christian future saint (although she does get baptized late in the book, this is largely a political maneuver and much of King Edwin's court does the same thing when he does). But I am certainly intrigued enough to read the next book, once it exists. And yet, I still don't feel like I've wrapped my mind around this novel yet…Did I enjoy it for itself, or because it does so many worthy things that I always want, but rarely get, in so much historical media? Does it even make sense to ask that question, as though those elements can be sifted out to get at the "objective" quality of my enjoyment, or of the book itself?
It did make me want to know more about this period, though: beyond a few flashes of delighted recognition at some cameos - the cowherd Caedmon who seems to have a knack for rewriting the prayers that Hild recites to him; someone mentioning how the scop sang a story about "the Geats and the dragon" - it's not a period I know at all well, so I could definitely stand to read some more things about it.