Whitby Abbey


Author: Nicola Griffith
First published: 12 Nov 2013
640 pages

You are a prophet and seer with the brightest mind in an age. Your blood is that of the man who should have been king …That’s what the king and his lords see. And they will kill you, one day’

Britain in the seventh century – and the world is changing. Small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. Edwin, King of Northumbria, plots his rise to overking of all the Angles. Ruthless and unforgiving, he is prepared to use every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Into this brutal, vibrant court steps Hild – Edwin’s youngest niece.

With her glittering mind and powerful curiosity, Hild has a unique way of reading the world. It is a gift that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. It is also a valuable weapon. Hild is indispensable to Edwin – unless she should ever lead him astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can see the future and lead men like a warrior.

Nicola Griffith has brought the Early Middle Ages to life. Drawn from the story of St Hilda of Whit by Hild transports the reader into an unforgettable world.

The Author

Nicola Griffith is a native of Yorkshire, England, and a dual US/UK citizen. She is the author of six novels (Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always, Hild). She is also an Essayist, a Teacher, Blogger and Winner of numerous Book Awards.

Book Review

Hild is set in the Early Medieval Period of the 6th-8th century.

The book functions on different levels, and is partly based on the scant information we have on the medieval Saxon world of the C7th. The book has a very full cast of people and names, taxing the reader to look again and again at the glossary or Who’s Who list at the back. The print version is easy to navigate, just flip back and forth as names and places crop up, but reading on Kindle or similar demands much more flipping to and fro, with the challenge of swiftly finding one’s place again. This slowed and broke my concentration over and over again. The numerous names and places also come with classical spelling, rather than in a script that is simpler to read. After all, with only one known exception, the Anglo-Saxon language was not committed to parchment until decades after St Augustine’s landing in Kent in a pre-literate culture.

This historical novel is full of beautiful descriptions of wild life, fields and rivers, plants and herbs, birds and squirrels. Hild returns to these again and again across most of the book, as she does in her descriptions of mead-hall culture, her dislike of Bishop Paulinus, and finally her journey through puberty into womanhood. The author’s temptation is to demonstrate again and again Griffith’s compendious knowledge of the natural world, small living creatures and the Saxon way of life and death but, until the reader too is left exhausted.

I enjoyed Griffith’s writing however, particularly her end of section or paragraph phrases, questionmarks and comments that spiked a thought or an insight into the author’s imaginary world. While Griffith avoids the tedious trap of writing “and then they went to”, when jumping from scenario to scenario without explanation, this sometimes renders the thread difficult to follow, both in time and place.
I was surprised to find after reading over 600 pages that the book ended somewhat less than halfway through Hild’s life, with a promise from the author that a part two would follow. Nothing in the opening blurb suggested this, leaving a number of threads hanging, not least how Hild managed to deepen her faith from sitting very light to religions and matters spiritual to eventually become the formidable Abbess of Whitby.

My disappointment was assuaged in part by Jill Dalladay’s The Abbess of Whitby that continues the story more or less where Griffith ends. (See below). But I’m also I’m looking forward to reading Nicola Griffith’s long-overdue second novel about Hild, explaining how she makes life’s key transitions in such deeply turbulent times.