Author: J. Anderson Coats
Release date: April 17th 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 354 pages
Buy: The Book Depository
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.
Surprisingly enough, quality YA historical fiction is hard to find. Unsurprisingly, when one does finally show up, it does not go unnoticed. The Wicked and the Just is a splendid debut, thoroughly researched and gorgeously written. Despite the overwhelming grimness, there is just enough hope shining through to make it bearable. If stories were people, I’d say this one is a lionheart.
Caernarvorn in 1294 was a great place to live – as long as you were English.*
The Wicked and the Just takes place in 13th century Wales. King Edward I of England conquered Wales between 1277 and 1283. The book takes place a decade later. In the center of it are two girls, a spoiled English brat Cecily and her angry Welsh servant Gwenhwyfar.
Forced to abandon his lordly manor in favor of his brother, Cecily’s father accepts an estate in newly conquered Wales. Motherless Cecily dreams of being the lady of the house, but the life she finds in Caernavorn is not quite up to her standards. On the other side, Gwenhwyfar works as a servant in a house that was meant to be hers. In Cecily, she sees the life she was supposed to have, if only the English never came. They took everything from her, her dignity included, and when they were done taking, they burned what was left to the ground. Gwennie has a dying mother, an overworked brother and more taxes than she can pay. On top of that, she has to put up with a spoiled English brat, the insufferable little girl clueless about the world that surrounds her.
Despite their adversarial positions, a slow tolerance develops between the girls. Their feelings for each other range from outright hatred, over grudging respect to tentative camaraderie and Coats explored each of these stages thoroughly and convincingly. Consequently, when tables turn on the English, the girls’ relationship and actions make perfect sense. Contrary to the title, there are no wicked and there are no just in this story, especially between the two girls. The wickedness and the justness are circumstantial, not absolute.
In the background, Coats strings a series of ugly episodes in which the Welsh are treated as no more than dirt on elegant English shoes. They are easy targets for everything from molesting to unlawful executions. They are starving in tiny houses after days of working for almost no wage, only to give what little they’ve earned back to the English for their ever-growing taxes. But does that give them enough moral high ground to behave just as despicably when the tables finally turn?
J. Anderson Coats used just enough archaic language to give the story a historical feel, but never went far enough to make it impossible to understand. Other non-native speakers like me should have no trouble following the story since even the completely unfamiliar words become understandable in context.
Oppression is hardly a pleasant subject and I tend to shy away from such things, but if you’re anything like me, keep in mind that The Wicked and the Just is simply too good to miss.
*from the Historical Note