This book takes a woman about whom very little is known and fashions a highly intricate historical novel around her. Hild certainly lived and was born around 614 but little else survives from her biography. Griffith seeks to fill this gap.
We meet Hild as a child and follow her as she grows into womanhood. She is brought into the court of Edwin, King of Northumbria, as his seer, all the while knowing that one false prophecy could result in her death. It's a brutal world, made more dangerous by the machinations of her mother and Edwin's hunger to rule the entire country. Hild's circle of trusted friends becomes more important to her the older she gets but there are things she needs to keep from them too.
I read this for a book group I'm a part of and, truly, I struggled with it. I think it was perhaps out of my comfort zone - I needed to refer too much to the family tree, map and glossary at the beginning of the novel and it really is a chunk of a book. That said, I do think the issue was down to me. It's exquisitely written with evocative descriptions that conjure up a lost world and the tenuous place of people within it. There are some brutal passages that have lived with me and I do feel like I came out of this book with a better understanding of life 1500 years ago.
Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed were the questions of religion. Christianity is spreading and the conversations about faith which spring up are fascinating. I much preferred these conversations that the occasional data-dumps by the narrator which were, unfortunately, necessary given the type of novel this is.
Rather perversely, I enjoyed this book more once the pressure of reading it for the book group had been taken away (I only finished half of it before the session). It certain picks up a bit and I felt more able to get to grips with the characters in the second half after spending so long working out who was who. Ultimately, I do think my difficulties with this one were down to me as the reader and not the book itself.