The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
This powerful historical fiction debut, set in medieval Wales, follows Cecily whose family is lured by cheap land and the duty of all Englishman to help keep down the “vicious” Welshmen, and Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh girl who must wait hand and foot on her new English mistress. As issues of prejudice, heritage, and occupation come to a head, both girls have to find a way to survive.
It’s 1293 in North Wales, and Cecily D’Edgeley’s sure her life is over. Her father has just uprooted them and moved them to Caernarvon, Wales, where she’s sure she’ll never meet a proper suitor or certainly be attacked by the barbarian Welshmen. Meanwhile, Gwenhwyfar is struggling just to survive, and has found work as a maid in the house she should be the lady of, had the English not taken everything from them. The two girls’ lives collide when Cecily and her father move into the house where Gwenhwyfar works. But life is only really good in Caernarvon if you’re English, and things have about reached their breaking point.
First off, I want to say that I really enjoyed this book, although parts of it were difficult for me to read. Cecily is perhaps one of the most unlikable main characters I have ever read. While her internal monologues are pretty funny, particularly her thoughts about the upper echelon of the Caernarvon population, she was really a very mean, spiteful girl who is very concerned with material things, at least for the majority of this book. There were times when I’d start to feel sympathetic towards her and then she’d do something that would totally change my mind. She was particularly cruel to Gwen’s brother for no other reason than a perceived slight which wasn’t really serious at all. And then she would do these things for Gwen herself, but always with ulterior motives. I just found her really hard to take, and had to set the book aside for periods of time because her behavior was so off-putting. (In fact, Cecily is the one reason I knocked a star off my rating. Seriously, she’s just an absolute WITCH.)
I did like the way that the book switched points of view between Cecily and Gwen, as it allowed you to see the severe differences in how they were living. I was more sympathetic towards Gwen because of the sheer poverty and difficulties her daily life gave her, but she, too, was hard to read at times because she was filled with so much rage and bitterness. She’s pretty vengeful in her own right, but I was able to tolerate it more because it seemed like her actions were completely justified. I just felt really sad for her throughout, with having to deal with supporting her ill mother and trying to keep herself and her brother from starving when it was so hard for them to find food. This is not to say that I agreed with all of her actions, because I didn’t, but I definitely found her to be the more sympathetic narrator.
There are tons of historical details in this book that seemed completely true to the time. The prose and the way the characters thought and talked was perfect for the period they were living in. All the details of the walled-in city and the poverty of the Welsh was just really well done and helped set the tone and helped pull the reader into the book. I do want to warn that this is violence, particularly at the end, and it’s pretty in your face and not watered down. I am not a fan of violence for violence’s sake, but that’s not at all what was going on here. Again, it was true to the time and helped accurately express what life was really like in Caernarvon during the English rule and the Welsh revolt. Just go into this knowing that portions of this book are quite dark.
All in all this was a really engrossing read that completely captivated me. I started it yesterday morning and, after brief periods of putting it down due to Cecily’s brattiness (Gwen calls her “the Brat” through most of this book and she’s totally right), finished it at 12:31am. I just didn’t want to stop reading until I could see how everything was going to turn out. Be forewarned that the character study is more the point of this book, though: it’s not non-stop action by any means, and nothing significant really “happens” until almost the end. But the evolution of Cecily and Gwen and the ways their lives intertwined and the twists and turns of their own personal stories were definitely engaging enough to keep me interested. If you like well-researched, solid historical YA books, then do yourself a favor and pick this one up. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
An e-galley was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.