Back in 2014, in Saint Hilda, I posted a rave review of Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild. I just finished its sequel Menewood and, in between, read her much-smaller Spear. These are all extremely good books and if you like well-done portrayals of violent conflict and royal-court politics and historical flavors and hot sex in just about any combination, you’re apt to like these.
Hild, again · Yes, I read it again when Menewood was about to drop and boy, did I ever enjoy doing so. I won’t revisit the details from that 2014 review linked above, just want to re-emphasize the flavor. It blasted my suspension of disbelief to tiny fragments, then swept them up and tossed them out. I absolutely believe that this was what being close to the center of the action in post-Roman Britain looked and felt and smelled like. Plus Hild and the people around her are, well, fun to be around.
Menewood · This inhabits the world of Hild but does not move the clock that far forward. It’s going to take Ms Griffith one more big thick book at the very least to turn Hild into Saint Hilda, the Abbess of Whitby, and that’s a fine thing; I hope to go along for the ride.
Now, Dear Reader, I have to share with you that I did not enjoy Menewood as much as I had Hild. Her world built firm, Ms Griffith lets the plot lead the story along. Yes, there are still smells and slaughters and sinful sex; the atmosphere remains thick. But inhabiting Hild’s world is not as much fun as first exploring it.
Also, at the center of the book, there is probably the most harrowing and gut-wrenching sequence of fictional events and experiences that has ever kept me shuddering as I raced through the pages. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, it does not go well for Hild. A lot of the worst things that can happen to a human happen and not just one at a time either. George R.R. Martin shook up his readership pretty hard with the awful things he did to his heroes; “Hold my beer” says Ms Griffith.
Then, the second half of the book, expanding out from the white-hot tangle of anguish at the center, is maybe a little predictable. Didn’t stop me enjoying it, even when I could see pretty clearly where it was heading. And I’ll buy the next Hild book the moment it’s for sale.
Now let’s give a Griffith book an unqualified rave with no Dear-Reader tropes.
Spear · Hild and Menewood are both doorstop-size; Spear a much slighter offering, just an evening’s reading or maybe two. It is an odd, idiosyncratic, side-looking variation on the story of Sir Percival and the Holy Grail, which is my personal favorite piece of Arthurian lore; at one point in mid-life I became obsessive and Read All The Books. Hmm, should write about that someday. But I digress.
Few of the characters go by their canonical names but Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot and Kay and Merlin and Morgan Le Fay and Gawain are all there, perfectly recognizable and generally good company. The story takes enjoyably post-modern twists. And, this being Griffith, has spicy lesbian sex and bloody passages of arms, losers usually receiving no quarter.
Griffith specialties · I have to say that Ms Griffith is preeminent among the authors I’ve read in recent decades at depicting conflict conducted with swords and lances and daggers and staffs and so on. In particular, Spear’s fight between Peretur and the Red Knight is just unequalled; I defy anyone to offer up a superior literary episode of single combat.
Let me broaden that a bit. Griffith is just really good at describing the physical experience of life. Pain, lust, odor, heat/cold, weariness, touch, touch, and more touch. And by the way, seventh-century Britain was a lot smellier than the world we live in. Read these books, you’ll come as close as you can, absent a time machine, to smelling those smells. And you’ll be glad you did.