Hild by Nicola Griffith is a historical novel about a medieval woman who eventually became an abbess. There’s very little actual information about the woman, but Griffith did a ton of research and it shows, in a very very good way. The names of people and places, the social roles and constraints, and even the landscape all contribute to the feeling of reading about an alien culture. If you like writing about the natural world, Griffith excels at bringing medieval England to life in that way.
It’s also a story about women seeking some control over their lives. Hild’s mother had or says she had a dream about Hild being “the light of the world,” and helps to shape her observant child into someone who’s considered a seer, valuable to the king. Women are shown working though the social system or around it to gain choices for themselves, sometimes successfully, sometimes thwarted by men or by other circumstances beyond their control. We see the female relatives of high-ranking men, peasants with few paths to higher economic standing, and a female slave whose role shifts as the story progresses. Violence is also a theme; power is shown to be gained and/or held through brutal maiming and killing and subjugation, while Hild tries the alternative of building a refuge for “her people,” hidden away in a reclaimed marshy area.
This book was really good, and deserves every bit of praise.
She liked time at the edges of things–the edge of the crowd, the edge of the pool, the edge of the wood–where all must pass but none quite belonged.
Hild leaned into the buffeting wind on the top of Ad Gefrin. She opened her mouth and let the wind whip her breath away. She loved it up here with the goats, loved the scudding clouds, the sun and shadow chasing each other over bent and silvered grass.
The moon moved higher, drew itself tighter and brighter. Then there it was: true night. That moment when the world seems to stop and wait and the air both stills and quickens, thick with tree breath and the listening of small animals. Foxes were abroad now, and badgers, and uncanny things.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is far more intricate than her previous fairy tale novel. It features multiple first-person narrators from multiple walks of life in a fantasy version of medieval Eastern Europe. It starts out as a take on the Rumpelstiltskin story, but also riffs on several other folk tales including a fire demon and an endless winter, and “dead mother speaks through a tree,” with a dollop of Jewish history and philosophy. There’s a satisfying found family narrative that turns out to be really important. It’s very good; the flaw, if you can call it that, is that the voices aren’t disparate enough, so sometimes it takes a little work to identify the new narrator. I didn’t mind this voice sameness that much; it helped keep the tone as a fairy tale rather than a modern novel, and supported the idea that all these people from different walks of life had the same type of fears and loves.
The main three characters are Miryem, a Jewish girl who takes over her father’s role as moneylender; Wanda, a peasant girl with an abusive father; and Irina, daughter of a duke who wants to marry her off for gain. All three of them end up interacting with each other and contributing to the outcome; all three of them take the best actions they can in difficult circumstances, and have to figure out how to live with those decisions or make them right, in what might seem like the falling action after the climax, but to me felt like the heart of the novel.
I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.
But the world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.
It didn’t matter that I cared, that I was sorry; what mattered was what I had done, what I would do.
The Night War by praximeter (Zimario) and quietnight is over a hundred thousand words of Bucky Barnes’ experiences in WWII, both before and after Captain America shows up in Europe; it ends just before Bucky’s death in the movie continuity. So far as I could tell, it’s really well researched, and the research flows naturally as part of the story; my favorite bit was a brief mention of a nebulizer, because a new version of those devices had become available in the 1930s. The narrative style feels like a real memoir to me, something scribbled on whatever was to hand whenever there was an opportunity.
There’s also a meta level. The story is being presented as the 60th anniversary edition of what, in this version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a classic war memoir published by Bucky’s family after his death, and it has footnotes about the fictional parts of the continuity as well as notes on the real history. Beyond all that cleverness, I was deeply involved with the story every time I picked it up, and at a couple of points I was brought close to tears. I could imagine reading this in a college class and having it be revelatory. My main trigger warning is that the Howling Commandos stumble upon and liberate a concentration camp close to the end of the war. There is also a lot of period-typical angst about the death of fellow soldiers and the particular moral dilemma of being a sniper.