Sunday, February 2, 2014

Hild: A review

"Hild" by Nicola Griffith is a phenomenal epic set in 7th century England - the growth of an empire from the perspective of the protagonist, who is both a seer and a female.

I find the portrayal of both of these aspects of her character fascinating, but for two entirely different reasons. The first is what another reviewer has called the 'skeptical fantasy' novel.

The argument made, is that it give a 'skeptical' interpretation of the fantasy genre, debunking the mystical elements of the story, even as they are presented. But to me, this means it's not a fantasy novel at all, that instead, it's historical fiction. Hell, it's Literary Historical Fiction. - it reminds me more of Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" than anything else. That same deep understanding of the politics of the time, the same meticulous research and the same view of the world through the lens of one character. Not a king, but an advisor, or more specifically here, a seer. Of course there is mysticism and religion, but any novel of the period would require this - it was a fundamental aspect of the time.

But it get's labeled as fantasy for one good reason, and one bad. The bad reason, is that Nicola Griffith has written Fantasy and SciFi in the past. And despite the fact that she's written in a variety of genres, there's a tendency in publishing to try and box writers into neat packages. This is why Margaret Atwood's novels are seen as LiFi (Literary Fiction), even though her forays into SciFi, are not particularly strong examples of either genre, despite the worshipful reviews and interviews she's had on the books.

The good reason, and there is one, is that if you do enjoy a lot of fantasy set in medieval or pre-medieval settings, you'll enjoy this. The characters view a world filled with the otherworldly, and their relationships with their gods are more visceral than intellectual. And of course, there's the same sense of honour, passion and adventure. And like Mantel it's beautifully written. The plotting and motivations are flawless, insanely complicated (especially if you have trouble remembering names, as I do), But its easily worth it, Hild is fascinating and deeply engaging.

The other aspect of the novel that I find interesting, is what it is not. I think of this novel in contrast to what I remember of "Mists of Avalon". I never did finish that novel - I found the female characters, frankly, unbelievable. Driven by barely understood passions, lacking (as far as I could tell) any intellectual aspect, they lacked a grounding in the fundamental truths of their world. It seemed to me, fatuous, overly romantic, and deeply annoying. The women in Hild's world are smart, practical and ambitious, but they are still deeply human, more than capable of having their reason swayed by desire, or passion, anger or fear. Like any of us.

Hild, of course, is a bit different from the rest of the women - she's seen as something deeply unworldly, capable beyond her years (like, "Ender's Game" capable) but that's, arguably, no surprise. She's the heroine - it what makes her the focus point of the story. But the other women (and it is predominately a woman's view of the world throughout) are like any women. Some smart, some not so much, some daring, some cautious. In some ways, it reminds me too, of a recent TV series, "The Bletchley Circle". Though frankly, in that series, all the women are exceptionally smart.

So, if you enjoy straight up Historical Fiction (like Mantel) or an altered history (like Kay) ore hell, any fiction at all, give it a go.