We don't get nearly enough new historical fiction taking place in Britain during the middle ages. Why is that? Why does so much new historical fiction cover the 20th century? I get rather tired of it. Which is why I pounced on a chance to read The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coates. (Plus look at the cover. I like that cover.)
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Cecily’s father has
ruined her life. He’s moving them to occupied Wales, where the king
needs good strong Englishmen to keep down the vicious Welshmen. At least
Cecily will finally be the lady of the house.
Gwenhwyfar knows all about that house. Once she dreamed of being the
lady there herself, until the English destroyed the lives of everyone
she knows. Now she must wait hand and foot on this bratty English girl.
While Cecily struggles to find her place amongst the snobby English
landowners, Gwenhwyfar struggles just to survive. And outside the city
walls, tensions are rising ever higher—until finally they must reach the
The Wicked and the Just is a story about the town of Caernarvon, Wales from 1293-1294. It is also the story of two girls, one English and one Welsh, and through them the experience of this 13th century town comes to life. The narrative is first person and moves between Cecily and Gwenhyfar, concentrating mostly on Cecily at first. Gwenhyfar is a girl of few words. She says much with little. She has adjusted to a harsh reality and learned the futility of complaining. Cecily on the other hand is a spoiled indulged brat who has much to say and enjoys saying it. Cecily is extremely unlikable as the story begins. Extremely. Gwenhyfar is far more sympathetic.She is, after all, a member of the oppressed. Her land has been stolen, her father killed, her mother lies dying. She and her younger brother are barely surviving. And Cecily is a brat so the reader can't help but side with Gwenhyfar as she takes orders and abuse from the girl. The English are the occupiers, the oppressors. The Welsh are the occupied, the oppressed.
The Wicked and the Just
Except Coates does not, bless her, allow it to be so simple. As the story progresses Cecily begins to grow and change. She is, after all, growing up. She is leaving behind childhood for womanhood and her entire life has been upended. It is enough to make anyone a little bratty. Cecily is beginning to look at the world around her and question it. She is beginning to think of others beyond herself. It is not a quick change, it happens slowly, and bratty Cecily certainly dominates the majority of her narrative. There is more to her though and when her wrongs are pointed out to her she works hard to right them. At the same time Gwenhyfar is being eaten by resentment, hatred and a need for revenge. She is biding her time, waiting for the moment when the oppressed will rise up and crush their oppressors. And then it happens and it is Hell and it shows what both girls are made of.
It was impossible to choose a side and therein lies the brilliance of the novel. It is not about one or the other, but both. It is the complexity of this history. We are all capable of justice and equally capable of wickedness.
Coates did not sugarcoat
anything here,nor did she feel the need to be graphic. She conveys the
horror of what happens to the Welsh under English rule, and then the
English when the Welsh rebel, with just enough details to get the point
across. It is violent, but it was a violent time. I was also impressed with the historical details and how they accurately depicted 13th century life.
I highly recommend this to anyone with a love of historical fiction or anyone who just enjoys a good portrayal of human nature. This is the author's debut novel and I am certainly looking forward to reading more from her.
I read an e-galley of this title made available from the publisher through NetGalley. It will be released Tuesday, April 17.