Hild by Nicola Griffith

Read: 7 March, 2015

We know precious little about the real Hild, a woman who lived in 7th century England. Within the frame of sparse information, Griffith weaves a tale of a young woman who navigates from being the homeless daughter of a murdered king, to king’s seer, a commander of armies, and weaver of political intrigue.

Years ago, when I read Dune, I was completely blown away. Previously, most of what I had read was assigned reading – classics with literary and historical merit. But Dune captured me. What I loved about it was the many moving parts – the members of the household and the surrounding nobles, each with their own goals and motivations, and the lone protagonist stuck in the middle trying to find the pattern, take hold of the weave, and re-stitch it to his own will. It’s a magnificent theme, and one that I’ve always loved seeing done well. And Griffith does it well. Very well.

Hild begins in a very precarious social position, and we see her (via her mother, at first) rise and find safety for herself and her loved ones through cunning and information. The details of her rise, and of her struggle to maintain safety in an environment where kings can rise and fall in the blink of an eye, was extremely well handled. I felt like I could really see her learning, working things out, and tailoring her advice to the personalities of the recipients.

Often, when a character is shown to be especially cunning, this is either done by making everyone else in the story too oblivious to see the obvious, or it’s done by having the character make impossible logical leaps. Here, however, we see Hild paying attention, we see her building a spy network, we see how she comes to make those logical leaps that she does make (and, perhaps just as importantly, we see her be wrong sometimes).

Another aspect of this book that I loved is how much time was spent on both the Big Political Stuff and on domestic business. We see Hild organizing alliances between kings, and we see her checking sheep to estimate the price of the resulting wool. This really spoke to me, because history tends to be taught as The Important Things Great Men (and these few token women) Do, and neglects to show us all the things women and people of lower social standing were doing in the background to make those Great Things work.

Not only that, but the women who organized alliances and gave advice behind the scenes rarely get any credit. Hild, as a seer, speaks more openly, but we see how her mother and the queen are able to nudge others as well. In other words, the history here felt complete, and it was lovely.

All this is mostly to say that this book was right up my alley. All of my alleys. Griffith did an excellent job controlling the narrative so that the rather lengthy character list never felt overwhelming, and the pacing was perfect.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the ending felt a little rushed. (SPOILERS: And while I understood Breguswith and Aethelburh’s motivation in orchestrating it, I didn’t grasp was Edwin was thinking. I feel like we should have seen Hild spend a little more time working that out, though I do see how that would have interfered with the pacing of the climax.)

I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in intrigue and the domestic world of 7th century England. If you have trouble keeping track of lots of characters (particularly since they have unfamiliar names, several of the characters having quite similar spellings), it may be useful to keep notes.

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Medieval Pet Names

Totally outside the scope of this blog, but I saw this and just really needed to share. Like, really really needed to.

Ever wonder what people in the Middle Ages named their pets? Well, this article has a neat little discussion for both cats and dogs. Here’s a few of my favourites:

  • Purkoy
  • Nosewise
  • Megastomo
  • Tibert
  • Meone
  • Cruibne
  • Pangur Ban

Make sure you go read the full article!

The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black

There are a few “medieval” cookbooks floating around, but this is the best I’ve seen so far. It’s the kind of cookbook that you can actually sit down and read through.

The recipes are divided by era, social class, and function. There’s a chapter on foods that were primarily associated with the cloister, for example, and a section for remedies. There are simple dishes with few ingredients that would be most appropriate for a side-dish or breakfast, and there are elaborate meals that belong more properly to a great feast.

Each recipe comes with a short introduction or with a contemporary passage describing the dish, followed by the ingredients list and instructions. Some license is taken with substitutions – sometimes multiple substitutions are indicated for choice – to deal with the fact that many of the ingredients are hard to find these days or no longer exist at all.

illustrations from contemporary sources are plentiful and printed in full colour, making this book a lovely source of medieval art as well.

I’ve tried a couple of the recipes over the years and enjoyed them. I’d love to throw a “Period Party” someday to really make use of this book.

Get cooking! Buy The Medieval Cookbook from Amazon to get started on your feast!

Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #3: The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

Read: 10 December, 2010

Gil Cunningham is eagerly awaiting a shipment of books. But when the barrel that was supposed to contain literature turns out to have a human head floating in brine instead, he and his companions become enmeshed in yet another mystery.

Another great addition to the series!

There’s a bit more supernatural stuff (a ghost this time), but it’s still manageable in quantity.

I like that Gil’s station changes between the books. Each book is an isolated mystery, of course, but the character development is continuous throughout the series. I’ve really enjoyed watching Gil’s relationship with Alys grow and change – which it does in a delightfully realistic and sensible way – as well as their accumulation of companions – first a baby, then a dog. I look forward to reading the next books in the series!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #2: The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh

Read: 3 December, 2010

Soon after the events in Harper’s Quine, Gil Cunningham participates in his old university’s Nicholas Feast. But during the day, a young student is found dead. Because of his success in catching the killer in Harper’s Quine, Gil is asked to solve this murder as well. Joined by his love, Alys, and her father, he immerses himself in politics and espionage to find justice for a student no one seems to have liked.

I bought this book, along with the next two in the series, as soon as I had finished the first one, but I didn’t read it for quite a while. In my silliness, I loved Harper’s Quine so much that I was afraid of burning through the series too fast!

This was an excellent addition to the series! Once again, the mystery was interesting, and I love the relationship between Gil and Alys (not to mention Alys’s father). I’m not a fan of the supernatural element (the titular Quine from the last novel seems to be psychic – although like most psychics, his pronouncements are vague enough to be of absolutely no use), but it’s low-key enough that it can be easily ignored. Besides, the rest of the story more than makes up for it.

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #1: The Harper’s Quine by Pat McIntosh

Read: 11 September, 2010

I think that anyone who pays some attention to my reviews here would easily be able to guess that I love mysteries and I love historical fiction. So when I came across Harper’s Quine as a book that offers both, I had to buy it. But, as is so often the case, it sat on my shelf next to a whole lot of other unread books as I tried mightily to catch my reading rate up to my shopping rate.

Finally, finally, it was time to give Harper’s Quine a turn, and I immediately regretted that I had waited so long!

Gil Cunningham is expected to enter the priesthood. But when he becomes mixed in with a murder investigation, he is led to meet the lovely Alys, his future becomes rather less than certain.

I really enjoyed this books for quite a few reasons. The biggest is that the mystery is solvable by the reader – pay attention while Gil gathers clues, and it’s possible to figure out the murder rather early on. It’s a little frustrating to see Gil continue to stumble about in ignorance, but it’s immensely satisfying to be proven correct at the end. These are my favourite sort of mysteries!

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the relationship with Alys. Alys is an active participant in the mystery solving. She’s smart, capable, and contributes a lot to the detective work. But at the same time, this doesn’t feel anachronistic. Unlike Rowland’s Uechi Reiko, Alys is not a modern feminist trapped in the past. She’s a strong woman, but she’s still plausible. And, as a woman, she has many responsibilities. While her father and lover are out having great adventures, she must remain mindful of her household and its need to be continuously managed.And she can’t just “do it all” – there are times when she can’t get to a particular task that’s relevant to the mystery because she is occupied with being the lady of the house.

If I had to look for a flaw, it would be with the fate of the baddie. I’ve complained about this before, I know, but I find it rather distasteful when the baddie(s) meets with a gruesome end. I understand that it’s supposed to be cathartic, or some such nonsense, but it just strikes me as barbaric. A simple hanging, while only slightly less brutal, would at least have the benefit of being that age’s expression of justice.

But leaving that aside, this was a truly remarkable book, a rare gem. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is a fan of mysteries and/or historical fiction!

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