Hild is really original partly because it's historical fiction set in 7th century England. Very specifically then, not just ye olden times, but with lots of specific detail of time and place.
This first volume in a coming trilogy follows Hild's youth from her first conscious memories to her marriage, and subverts quite a lot of the tropes of the fantasy warrior princess type of story. It's very, very conscious about gender; rather than having Hild be a feisty woman who hates embroidery and wants to learn sword-fighting and Latin, it starts from the assumption that textiles and other mostly female-coded activities are core to what keeps society running. And it's painful for Hild both internally and in terms of the prejudice she faces from others to be transgressing her expected gender roles, and there is a whole cast of traditionally feminine characters who are all accorded respect, it's not just that the heroine is Special because she carries a seax as well as a distaff. There are little bits where a contemporary feminist Message creeps in; at worst, a direct quote from Margaret Atwood in the mouth of Hild's mother, and little bits of the dislikeable characters being those who over-insist on gender segregation.
I absolutely adored the world-building. I don't know how much is based on historical evidence and how much is just imagined, but it's an amazingly original setting. I completely loved the idea of gemæcce, female weaving partners formally bonded from early adolescence. Also Hild's relationship with her gemæcce Begu; it's a lovely depiction of a strong friendship between an extrovert and an introvert. (Yes, of course I relate to Begu, the sidekick, more than the chosen one!) Everything, from domestic tasks to travel, feels real and solid, and the descriptions of nature are really gorgeous. Because I was reading in e-book I couldn't keep flipping back to the map, but you can tell there's serious distance between, say, Northumbria and Wales. There's a certain amount of gory detail of both military violence and maternal death, though it never seems titillating and the relatively rare instances of rape happen offscreen. The sex in the later part of the book feels a bit over-wrought, a bit id-fic like, and there's a certain amount of incest, specifically (ROT13 for spoilers and disturbingness) pbafrafhny frk orgjrra nqhyg unys-fvoyvatf.
The religious stuff is really interesting. On the one hand, Hild basically uses other people's religious beliefs as a means of manipulating them, and religion, particularly the transition from English Paganism to Christianity is very much intertwined with politics. At the same time, there's a really strong sense of the numinous and the book lets the reader come to their own conclusion about whether the old gods and or Jesus Christ are real in this world. It was really interesting to think about the details of that single line in history books that tells you about Christianity coming to England, the social and personal consequences of whole kingdoms adopting a new religion like that.
Anyway, I was completely caught up in the book, kept finding excuses to read just one more page, and I was really quite disappointed not to be in Hild's head any more. I can absolutely see why this book is such a sensation, and I do strongly recommend it to readers of both speculative fiction and historical novels.
Up next: A wild sheep chase by Haruki Murakami.
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