A Tunnel in the Sky

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by Nicola Griffith

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 1, 2022

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In spite of the fact that Nicola Griffith's Hild was a finalist for both Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, it is not fantasy, although the hint or expectation of magic always lies just below the surface. It is historical fiction, but also speculative fiction, since almost nothing is known of the early life of the woman who would later be known as Saint Hilda of Whitby. What little we do know comes from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by the Venerable Bede some fifty years after her death. She lived during a time of transition, as Christianity was making inroads into the British Isles, and while she was baptised, this story says she still had respect for older beliefs, even harboring and defending pagan priests. Not much is known about the everyday lives of people in 7th Century England either, other than a few details concerning kings, and wars, and invasions. Griffith provides a brief introduction explaining that the narrative is her own invention, although certain historical events can be verified. There is also a glossary and pronunciation guide at the end. The United States has been dubbed a "melting pot," but so were the British Isles. Angles, Saxons, Scots, Picts, Celts, Irish, most of whom descended from various Germanic tribes who came to the islands either before the Romans or after. Marriages, alliances, and wars shifted borders and family powers multiple times.

We can't know with certainty where Hild was born, but wikipedia says in the Kingdom of Deira circa 614. There were many kings (always lowercase), ruling over various areas. Hild was the second child of Hereric, nephew of Edwin, king of Deira. I may have missed some detail, but I'm not sure why or by whose command Hereric was in exile in the court of Ceredig, king of Elmut (now West Yorkshire). It didn't seem it would have been Edwin, since Hereric only had two daughters, so no threat to Edwin at that time. Hild was three when her father was assassinated by poisoning. She and her mother, along with a few loyal servants, were able to escape and find refuge in Edwin's court. Hild's mother, Breguswith, began the myths of her daughter from a dream, although it is possible she fabricated that to give weight to her words. Hild was the be the "Light of the World," a seer. Even at a very early age Hild became a close advisor to Edwin. From that came the accusations that she was a hægtes (witch), and also that she might be descended from an etin (giant), due to her taller than average stature. But she wasn't a witch, and she was completely human. Her pronouncements of future events derived exclusively from her brilliant mind, her ability to absorb details and extrapolate from them. She was also an avid observer of nature, which gave her insight into potential weather patterns. Her advice aided Edwin in his campaign against Berenicia to the north, which he combined with Deira to form Northumbria, and he was determined to be hailed as overking of the Angles.

There are many other fiction books on my to-be-read pile, but if not for that I would love to do more research into this period. I've already learned several things of which I was previously unaware. According to the appendix and glossary, the Angles spoke Anglisc, which is what we think of now as Old English. British was spoken by the Saxons in the south, but it's closer to modern day Welsh. Hild was taught from an early age by an Irish priest named Fursey, who was nominally a slave, captured during a previous conflict. He also knew Latin, so Hild learned at least four languages, which she used to her advantage in dealing with various peoples later. One is more inclined to listen to a stranger if that stranger speaks their language, and it also helps if you can listen in to conversations of people who do not realize you know their language. As I said earlier, Hild was not a fortune-teller, but she could interpret events to get a good idea of what lay ahead. She knew Edwin wouldn't be king forever, so she had to think of herself too, maneuver and manipulate things to her own advantage. Part of that was persuading Edwin to let her have sovereignty over a parcel of land most people would think was worthless. It was an almost hidden valley she remembered from her childhood near Elmut, mostly just a bog, but she could see its potential if properly maintained. She sent one of her pagan priest allies there, both for his own protection, but also to begin the rehabilitation of that land, which she named Menewood. That will be the title of the second book in this series, which the author says she is currently editing, with a projected publication sometime in 2023. I would love to start reading it now.

It is written in third person, but everything is from Hild's perspective, things she observed personally, or news she heard from various sources from all corners of the country. Her mother told her to be quiet and listen, which she did for the most part, until she either volunteered information she thought Edwin needed to hear, or when he pressed her for advice. The times she was quiet resulted in many being suspicious of her, wondering what she might be plotting. When she spoke her message was not always received in the manner intended. She often phrased things in a way that might have seemed she was a true seer, but that was just her method of reinforcing her position. Edwin also continually leaned on the advice of Paulinus of Kent, a Catholic emissary. Edwin was baptised on Easter Day, 12 April 627, along with many of his court, including Hild. She would have been thirteen at that time. I think that was the last time her age was mentioned, and at least two more years followed in this book. Nothing I've found elsewhere indicates she ever married, but she does here. The book ends on her wedding night, when she would have been at least fifteen, maybe sixteen. Unlike so many other marriages of the time, her husband is the person she has loved the longest, although she had almost resigned herself to losing him to someone else. We'll have to wait and see how long that marriage lasts, but we do know from history that Edwin's rule will end about three years later.

Even if the second book is again mostly fiction, I still want to experience more of Hild's life, not the least of which will be finding out how she reconciled her previous actions and beliefs to become a Catholic saint. This is a beautifully written account of a harsh and brutal history, mainly because Hild is in love with the land and its peoples (plural). It was her influence that got Edwin to grudgingly accept wealh (outsiders/strangers, which eventually morphed into the word Welsh) as fellow citizens of his kingdom. But there would always be petty grievances between the various kingdoms, no matter how many women were married off to form new alliances. It's hard to say how accurate this is concerning the life of common folk, the farmers, herdsmen, weavers, brewers, and bandits. It was real enough for me as I read, whether the events were positive or less so. The second book might be mostly about Menewood, but I'm sure other events will be featured too. Hild is highly recommended, and I can't wait for more.


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Nicola Griffith

November 12, 2013

Finalist for:
Campbell Memorial

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