review by Maryom
Seventh century Britain is a divided land of small kingships, each jostling for power over the others; a world of shifting alliances and almost constant war in which even small children are caught up in the power-play, seen as either threats to power, or useful bargaining tools. When her husband, an exiled possible-heir to one of these kingdoms, is murdered, Breguswith seeks refuge for herself and her two daughters with Edwin, King of Northumbria. The eldest, Hereswith, will follow the 'normal' life set out for all royal daughters, to become a 'peacemaker', married off to a distant king to forge an alliance, but for the younger, Hild, there are different plans - following a dream, Breguswith has raised her younger daughter to become a seer, a "light of the world". Hild's uncannily accurate predictions gain her a place at Edwin's court but her position still remains tenuous and dangerous. Although Hild's visions often give Edwin forewarning of his enemies' plans and enable him to outmanoeuvre them, they don't always predict the future a king wants to hear.
Hild is a captivating glimpse of life in the so-called Dark Ages, which feels like a mix of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and GRR Martin's Game of Thrones; there's all the intimate observation, the capturing of quiet moments outside the rush of historical events of the former, coupled with the blood-thirsty power-struggles of the latter - and the length of both, for this isn't a short slim volume but a 500+ page epic that only covers the early part of Hild's life.
Hild is an unusual young woman. With her special position as seer, she
doesn't fit in to the expectations and assumptions of those around her.
She isn't being groomed for marriage in the way that her sister is,
instead she learns to fight and defend herself, and leads her men into
battle. Perhaps because of this she feels more 'modern' than the other women but none of them seem mere puppets under men's control. Breguswith particularly is shown as trying to influence events and warp them to her advantage, both through personal connections and trade.
As with Wolf Hall, this isn't a book to hurry over but one that had me wanting to savour
almost every page, to absorb the moment as Hild herself does, to sit with her and watch the flight of birds or the
ripples in a pond. I loved the depth of historical detail that brought
day to day life, well, to life - the women's work in the weaving sheds
or dairy proving more fascinating to me than battles.
Although this is described as the story of St Hilda, it isn't one of Christian virtues or evangelism. Seventh century Britain is a violent, turbulent place and Edwin, with designs on becoming High King, is out to gain every political advantage - adopting the Christian faith is just one of them. I know virtually nothing about St Hilda, but Hild is far from the meek-mannered, deeply-religious woman I'd expected and there's also perhaps more sex than you would expect in the life of a saint. None of this affected my enjoyment of the book but it might come as a surprise to some.
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Little, Brown
Genre - adult historical fiction