Monday, January 02, 2017

Angling

Hild is the best book I've read so far in 2017! OK, that's faint praise, but it's also one of my favorites from 2016. It's a historical novel set in Britain in the seventh century. It's evocative of much of the fantasy that first ignited my love of reading: a coming-of-age story, swords and seers and secrets, dynasties and wars. But it's fundamentally different: realistic (not magical), with a female protagonist, morally gray dilemmas, more interested in wielding power than acquiring or defeating it.


To an extent, the book reminded me of John Gardner's Grendel, one of the most influential books of my teenage years. Like that novel, Hild is intensely curious about first principles, in the origins and purpose of social and political structures. Not just "there was a king": where did the king come from? Why would one man willingly submit to another? What benefit is gained by having a local warlord monopolize violence in a region? How does wealth encourage the formation of power, and how does power support the accumulation of wealth? Both stories are set around the same time period (with a considerably longer back-story in Grendel), but they feel very different and are trying to accomplish different things.

MINI SPOILERS

For example, most fantasy and medieval historical novels will depict kings wearing gold crowns and rings and such. I think Hild does a better job than any other book I've read in depicting why they would do this. A king like Edwin doesn't have a castle with treasury and towers and such. He's constantly on the move, visiting his feudal underlings, impressing them with his power and attention. So his wealth needs to be mobile. Carrying gold on his body is the safest way to keep it. And, in a world where coinage is scarce outside of international trade centers, he needs to be ready to pluck off a ring or other bauble to pay for services rendered or offer a gift to a potential ally.

As in the best speculative fiction, Nicola Griffith never actually comes out and says any of this, either in narration or through in-universe dialogue. Rather, she does a great job at building up the world, showing us how it works, letting us absorb its characteristics through osmosis, and then leaves us to infer the rules underlying it. I was surprised at how emotional I got during scenes where Hild demonstrates her mastery of this system, like when she accepts Oeric as her sworn man, or the thanks of the swineherds after her prophecy saves their household (and then proceeds to care for them further). This world operates by different principles than our own, but the story is deep enough that those principles become real for us, and we cheer to see Hild rising to the heights of this world.

I loved how Nicola handles Hild's prophecies. This isn't a supernatural book, and she never has any actual visions. Instead, she's really good at observing the world around her and drawing conclusions. Because she's so soft-spoken, the people around her don't see her thought process: they only hear her conclusions, which seem to come from out of nowhere and are accepted as prophecy. As readers, though, we can admire the intelligence rather than the fate underlying those prophecies. These are drawn from a wide variety of sources: overheard gossip, secret reports from informers, knowledge of actions being taken by her mother and other major actors. My favorites, though, were the ones that are evocative of "real" historical prophecies. It's a bit of a cliche for a wise man or woman to look for signs in nature, like the flight of birds or the appearance of other animals. (We have a remnant of this in our Groundhog Day tradition.) Hild sometimes delivers prophecies based on birds, but in her case, it's because she knows what those birds are, where they're supposed to be, and what external forces would cause them to appear here instead of there.

With things like prophecies, we get insights into Hild's thoughts that help us piece things together. Often, though, we're just immersed in the world. This pays particular dividends in the language. There are a bunch of examples, but my favorite is wyrd. Again, nobody ever defines it within the novel, but you can suss out its meaning through context, and, over the course of hundreds of pages of seeing it used, I came to really grok it. That's cool within the context of this book, but as a fun little bonus, I also now have an extra layer of understanding and appreciation for the "weird sisters" of Macbeth, focusing on their role as fate-spinners rather than their status as outsiders.

There are a ton of things to puzzle out. Sometimes our understanding runs ahead of Hild's, but often it lags behind; other times, you get the impression that Hild is resisting conclusions that are painful to bear. One big thing running throughout the course of the book is the connection between Hild and Cian, which isn't explicitly spelled out until near the end, but is very clearly forecast.

Hild is a very cool heroine, but her relationships form the heart of the novel. Cian's is the longest-running and one of the most affecting, but my favorite might have been her bond with Begu. Among other things, I just love the way she talks, an endless torrent of random details pouring out in a stream of consciousness. It's endearing to see Hild, who is so bright and skilled at piecing things together, utterly lost when talking to her. (And it was super-touching to see Begu's self-awareness late in the novel and realize that her mind is also sharp, just tuned to a different end.) I also loved how close Begu and Hild remained even after they each paired up with their own separate romantic partner.

I had a hard time for a while getting a bead on Gwyladus's deal, so open and generous in one way but so closed and cold in another. I think I get it now, and am still kind of processing what it means and how I feel about it. I'm not used to seeing asymmetric romantic relationships depicted in fiction, especially ones with a physical component. I was so happy at the start of that plot thread, and so sad at the end... Hild is making the right choices, but falling farther from the happiness I want for her.

However, I did really appreciate how almost everyone seems to accept their liaison, including Begu and her sworn men. I was particularly struck by Breguswith's conversation with Hild when she's counseling her to treat her frustration: Breguswith plays the pronoun game, always saying "person" or "someone" rather than "man" or "him". Breguswith is probably the most perplexing character in the novel, and I'm still not sure exactly what to make of this. She might be an extremely perceptive mother, and have observed her daughter's inclinations, and implicitly freeing her to pursue her desires. Or it might be the opposite: she's so cold and aloof that she literally does not care who Hild dallies with, so long as they are discreet. I also found myself thinking back to the start of the novel. Given Cian's parentage, it's totally understandable that Onnen and Breguswith would have a strained relationship. But is it possible that Onnen and Breguswith were themselves involved with one another? That would add a whole other layer to the dynamic, and even more complex overtones to the children's upbringing. I don't think there's any real evidence in the text to support this, but the idea fascinates me.

Romantic entanglements are especially significant in the context of the Church's (re-)arrival in England. The novel opens just as emissaries from the Roman church arrive from the mainland, seeking to convert the Anglisc kings and their subjects. I really liked how religion was depicted in the novel: it's a well-rounded view that looks at the political, social, economic, and spiritual impacts that the conversion has. It isn't just a matter of defiling temples to Woden and building churches for Christ: it's also an introduction of literacy, of working in this world to achieve a reward in the next, of replacing an old set of values built around glory and conquest with a new set of values built around humility and elevation. Paulinus, the chief bishop, is one of the major antagonists of the novel and Hild's primary rival; but Deacon James is one of the most likeable men, and his choral music awakens a genuine epiphany from Hild.

Hild's struggle to understand and conform to Christianity was very touching. She's very insightful about the worldly aspects of the church, predicting when the drive to conversion will be counter-productive or understanding how alliances in faith will translate to alliances in arms. But she's also concerned about the personal, spiritual aspect to it. She seems genuinely sad that, no matter how she tries to pray, she never hears God speak to her. She tries to understand sin, coming to a good understanding of it as a stain, and worries about being burned when her sin is removed at baptism. She also worries about her place in the world: she's very aware that, as a woman and as a seer, this new church does not value her words, and she tries to build a place for herself where she can help her king and her people without incurring the wrath of God.

Throughout her whole life, Hild stands outside of her expected role. Tall and fierce, she draws blood while fighting as a young child, speaks confidently to her king, and gains the respect of hardened warriors. But she also weaves cloth with women, aids in healing and birthing, wears dresses, separates cream, and otherwise performs traditionally feminine work. Her appearance and activities cause others to fear and gossip about her, which, despite her well-trained exterior, hurts her feelings. One of the many slurs she overhears is "Freemartin", which I haven't heard before but is particularly resonant for Hild, especially in light of her bond with Cian.

While this in-between existence can be painful for Hild, it's a boon for us readers. It allows some awesome, and kind of horrifying, full-on action sequences, like the scenes where Hild and her posse chase down bandits who are hurting her people. A lot has been written about "Strong female protagonists", and I agree that it doesn't necessarily have to mean a Rambo-esque woman who's good at killing people; but here, that's what Hild is, and she rules. The operative phrase that keeps coming up is "skirt and sword". Almost everyone needs to pick one path or the other. These are usually chosen based on birth gender. Some men, notably priests, choose to follow the path of the skirt rather than the path of the sword. Hild is the one character in the entire novel who straddles both worlds, and she does so believably and with supreme skill.

A few other random miscellaneous thoughts:

The novel is written in limited third-person, and almost every section is anchored on Hild, but there are a handful of scenes throughout the book where we jump to someone else's perspective. Hild is still present in those scenes as well, and it's interesting to get an outside perspective on her. There isn't anything particularly necessary about these passages - Hild is very aware of what others think of her, so there aren't many new revelations - but it's still an interesting way to occasionally shift things around.

This is an unabashed work of prose, but there is some good, subtle use of old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon alliteration scattered throughout the book. For example:
"From Arawn's realm, Onnen said, stirred by the hooves of the horses and hounds of Hel as they hunted high in the sky."

There's also some more modern rhyming later on:
"It was the kind of song they loved: blood and gold, never grow old, never feel cold, honey in the comb, hearth and home, glory and story."

Unlike some fantasy novels, Hild doesn't usually drop entire segments of poetry into the narrative, but song and music are portrayed as important elements. They aren't just backstory or flavor, like Aragorn singing the Lay of Beren and Luthien: they're deployed to achieve specific ends. You can see the showmanship behind the scop's use of dramatic chords when Edwin is about to make a pronouncement, or how the gesiths rouse themselves to frenzy with songs of glory, or, conversely, how Gwyladus will ask the bard to cease singing of combat while Hild worries about Cian's fate.

I was thrilled to see C├Ždmon pop up in the story. I'm not sure if it's the historic one, but it fits the time period. It's awesome to see him translating scriptures into the vernacular, even as a child, finding the beautiful and true way to best say a thing.

Little nuggets like that helped this story feel really grounded and realistic. It's heavier on the "fiction" side than the "historic" side, but the history seems very well-researched, so as to not be distracting. (Only two anachronisms jumped out at me: Hild considers corn a potential crop in seventh-century England, and the Roman clergy say variations of "God helps those who help themselves". Not bad for such a long book!)

The only other book of Nicola Griffith's that I've read is "The Blue Place", which I thoroughly enjoyed but didn't have a whole lot to say about (apart from inarticulate teary sputtering) and never got around to posting about. Anyways, as I got further into Hild I found myself periodically comparing Hild to Aud, the protagonist of the earlier book. Both of them are unusually tall, and slightly outsiders. (Aud is a Norwegian/Englishwoman living in America; Hild is the daughter of Hereric, living in a rival's household.) Both have difficult relationships with mothers who are ambitious, ruthless, talented, and often absent. But Aud seems a bit more butch, embracing some traditionally masculine characteristics and roles, while Hild seems more otherworldly, transcending and charting her own course. (To be fair, though, it's an uneven comparison, since we never see Aud as a child and Hild is just barely an adult by the end.)

MEGA SPOILERS

So, yeah. I enjoyed this book, though I would have enjoyed it a lot more without the incest. I don't think that was done specifically to be edgy, or to send a "the heart wants what it wants" message, but I was still a bit baffled and disappointed by its inclusion.

END SPOILERS

I was thrilled, though, to see in the author's note at the end that Nicola has already started work on a sequel! As long and epic as this book is, it feels like Hild's story is only beginning: she's a bright, talented young woman in a world filled with danger and opportunity, with the resources and will to make a difference. I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing Hild navigate the path ahead.

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