Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Abbess of Whitby, by Jill Dalladay. Lion Fiction, 2015

In the 7th century AD, young Hild, who attends her queen, is chosen as the handmaid of Eostre. She goes about blessing the plants and animals to insure their fertility. The handmaid serves for one year, when a new one is chosen. Hild, however, turns out to be the last handmaid, as the rulers of the land turn away from the old religions and adopt Christianity. While Hild’s king holds to the old religion of Woden and Thor, the queen is a Christian.

“England” as a unified country does not exist yet. Numerous kings battle constantly over land and resources. Many marriages are made to cement peace treaties; every royal girl must expect this to happen to them. Hild did not expect this to happen to her, but it turns out she has enough royal blood to be a bargaining chip. A marriage that is loveless at first is arranged for her and she has to leave the people she grew up with. This won’t last long though; the incessant battles mean she is driven from her new home.

Hild is a very resourceful woman. She knows the healing arts and is skilled in running a household. As she finds herself pushed from place to place during a hard life, she always manages to make the best of her situation; not just making things better for herself, but for those around her. She finds herself curious about this new religion, as joyous Christian brothers roam the land, spreading their faith. She learns to read and write, copying their books and memorizing them. Gradually, without really thinking about it, she finds herself the leader of a Christian community, where despite their poverty, everything is shared.

Of course even they are buffeted by raids and wars. Brothers and bishops are killed. The plague wipes out a huge segment of the population. But a change as big as the baptism of the population comes when one bishop takes on the ways of Rome, insisting on gathering riches for the church, forsaking the vow of poverty, and making the accoutrements of the church and the bishop-hood of gold and silk.

The book covers Hild’s life in detail from childhood to death. It vividly portrays the hardships of the era- no one, including royalty- had comfortable, easy lives. People slept on straw. Food was scarce, particularly in drought years or when raids occurred. Medicine consisted of a few herbal remedies. Every single thing had to be made from scratch. But despite the vividness of the settings and the details of everyday life, the book is slow and pretty unexciting. Hild is strong, smart, and of good heart, but she never really springs into life on the page. The book was interesting, but not really gripping. And I found the portrayal of the Old Norse religion as ‘evil’ annoying. Just because it was different doesn’t mean it was evil. 

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I received a copy of this book free from Net Galley in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

1 comment:

  1. From the title I thought this one had possibilities. Maybe not - for the reasons you mention