Thursday, April 12, 2012
The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
April 17, 2012; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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. (courtesy of Goodreads)
Are you a die hard historical fiction fan? Do you like immersing yourself in a very foreign world, be it realistic fiction or fantasy? If so, you will enjoy The Wicked and the Just.
Set in 13th century England and Wales, The Wicked and the Just is heavy historical fiction. By that I mean that the setting and the time period are main characters of the novel. Most of the story is not plot heavy, until the end when things really start happening - in an eye-popping "wow" fashion. This can be frustrating to someone who does not like historical fiction. I love historical fiction. The experience of "traveling" to a different culture is just as interesting as the plot. The book pushes you right into the deep end. There is no prologue explaining religious or social beliefs of the time, no glossary for foreign terms. Part of me wishes there had been more explanation to make it easier to absorb, but mostly I respect the author for not dumbing down the novel. What you don't understand makes sense through context.
Another unique feature of this book is that it is told through alternating points of view of two unlikable characters. Cecily is a stuck up rich girl who expects everyone to bow down to her. She looks at her servants and even people of equal social class with the same disdain that people look at a pile of dog crap they've just stepped in. She stays this way throughout the entire novel. That's not to say she's an entirely bad person. She has a basic sense of justice - that the Welsh people shouldn't be treated as subhuman. At least she is equally mean to all people, Welsh or English. Cecily reminded me of Scarlett O'Hara.
Gwenhwyfar is Cecily's Welsh servant. She hates Cecily. She is understandably bitter and harsh given her horrific living conditions and abject cruelty to which she is daily subject. She is very proud and acts with such rudeness that any other household would have fired her long ago. It was not always enjoyable to read about two characters who generally thought and acted only in negative ways, but I admire the author for not going the typical sweetheart route. For various reasons, by the end of the story, I respected both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar.
The Wicked and the Just does not hesitate to describe the English settlers' cruelty toward the Welsh. Not being British, I knew nothing about Welsh history, although from what I do know about British history in general, I'm not surprised that it wasn't warm and fuzzy. Apart from the treatment of the native Welsh, I enjoyed reading about the daily lives of the British and Welsh residents. The Welsh lives were horrible, but Cecily's life was fascinating when she wasn't sulking. Trips to the market, the very strong influence of medieval Catholicism, embroidery, housekeeping, and husband hunting.
While I love the strong dose of history I received in this novel, part of me wishes that it had been less work to read with a faster moving plot, at least early on. Mostly because these factors will turn off many readers who are not heavily interested in historical fiction. It is not an easy book. I love feeling like I learned a great deal when I finish a book and The Wicked and the Just definitely fulfilled that wish. I also don't mind that the characters are unpleasant, but this will also be a turn-off for a lot of readers. My only other complaint is that I had trouble figuring out how old Cecily is. She seemed to be of early marriageable age, but she often behaved so immaturely that I figured her to be closer to 12 or 13. It made it more difficult to understand her character. The Wicked and the Just was a fascinating immersion into 13th century England, but it may not appeal to everyone.