Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher from NetGalley.

I have to admit that at first glance, The Wicked and the Just did not catch my eye. It was when I came across a review by another reviewer whose opinion I respect that I realised that this was actually the sort of book that really should have caught my attention. Boy, am I glad that I got the chance to go back on my original overlooking of the book because it really is that good!

Title: The Wicked and the Just
Author: J. Anderson Coats
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Target audience: YA
Length: 352 pages
PoV: 1st person
Tense: Present tense

Story: 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 breaking point.

Thoughts and impressions: Something that I think will be very important to take into account with this book is that it will not be for everyone: neither character is particularly likeable; there’s not very much action and everything is very slow-burning; sometimes the narrative is on the jumpy side as it passes from one scene to another with no warning; etc.

It was perfect for me.

One of my favourite books is Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley. It chronicles the life of a Celtic warrior queen as she and the rest of Alba (now Scotland) face the threat of the encroaching Roman Empire. The Wicked and the Just tackles things from a different angle. Set over a millennium later, this story chronicles the tensions that ensued as Wales became annexed to England and the English who have moved to the various English settlements there treat the Welsh badly.

You can practically feel the tension oozing from the book in places. A lot of it is what the reader can deduce from the observations of the locals by the English girl, Cecily, who has been brought to Wales by her father. Or rather, the English as a group have managed to blind themselves to just what they’re doing to the Welsh and Cecily does not take the initiative to open her eyes. It doesn’t surprise me that they turned a blind eye to the suffering of the locals – it felt as though they’d got a taste of freedom where they could do what they liked without the king watching over their shoulders and they’d got to the point where they didn’t think twice about abusing the privilege.

The two narrators are Cecily – whose father took her to Wales after her uncle returned from the Crusades in the Holy land and reclaimed his lands from his younger brother, thus pushing him to accept a position in Wales; and Gwenhwyfar – a young Welsh woman who appears to have been the daughter of a local chieftain until the English came and hung him from their new walls when he refused to submit to their rule.

Cecily is, to put it bluntly, a spoilt brat. She likes to throw her weight around whenever she possibly can. She’s conceited and rude and places far too much belief in her own importance. To make up for this her narrative voice often takes on the sarcastic tone of one long-suffering with gems such as: “It’s raining. Again. Little wonder naught grows here. We ought to sow the fields with fish.”

Gwenhwyfar’s voice is very different. There’s a lot of cloaked anger in her as she witnesses the degrading of her people as that English brat waltzes around with the other English like they own the place, as they take everything from the Welsh while she and her people have to worry about starvation, as crimes against the Welsh go unpunished by the English councils.

What I found really interesting is that when the tensions finally mount to breaking point and Cecily and Gwenhwyfar’s roles are reversed their narrative voices were also reversed. This was a very interesting technique to use and I feel that it came across really well.

This is in no way the sort of story where everything is strung together by a sequence of action scenes. It’s more a look at how life was in this area during this era and while this may not appeal to everyone, it does appeal to me. I’m fascinated by history and as a Brit I was of course aware of how Wales became annexed to England as well was the fact that there was an uprising some years later against the English rule. I was not, however, aware of the subtleties or the treatment of the local population by those English who chose to cross the border, though I suppose that I could have hazarded a good guess. This is not to say that I would have been able to guess the details, mind, and as such I feel as though I have learnt a lot from reading this book!

In fact, there’s almost no action at all until the very end of the book. Despite this, both characters do manage to grow and when it’s required of them both will break from their respective moulds in order to step up to the mark. Gwenhwyfar is limited in what action she can take but she does teach Cecily a few very important lessons about life. Cecily, with more freedom afforded to her, can occasionally stick her neck out for what is right rather than what is the norm.

The novel covers a couple of years of life in this English community in Wales, broken down into periods of time. Occasionally the narrative will be following a certain event for a while and then all at once the new paragraph break leads to a new, completely different and unrelated event. These could at times be a bit sudden and jarring but I had no major issues with them as it was fairly easy to wrap your head around the subject change each time.

The author has a wonderful, lyrical style that really drew me in and managed to give the feeling of a historic setting. She does go down that road of using very modern vocabulary (“upside the head”) or more recent American vocabulary (“stoop”) a couple of times, which was frustrating for me as I felt that it ruined the effect she strove so hard to create in the first place.

At the end of the day, this was a novel that didn’t catch my attention upon first glance, but it’s one that took me on a real ride and educated me as well as entertained me. It won’t appeal to all readers, but it was just my cup of tea. I loved it.

Style: See above. Also, Cecily’s voice is perhaps a tad too modern but it entertained me to the point where I didn’t mind.

Final verdict: A fabulous book that paints a fascinating portrait of tension in Wales during one of the most important points in the country’s history. 5 stars

Extra notes: I think there was a very small amount of bad language. No sex. The book is appropriate for young adults but may appeal to an older audience more.


  1. Tweeted this post. Everyone should know about another great story.

    Keep up the good work. :-)

  2. Thanks! I really do recommend this book if you're a history buff or like slow burning tension.

  3. I love a good YA historical fiction and this one sounds great! So glad you enjoyed it :) Hopefully I'll get to read this one soon.


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