When I saw The Wicked and the Just on our new YA display, I snatched it up immediately and finished it in a matter of hours. This is a powerful, captivating work of historical fiction.
Cecily is living somewhat contentedly in 13th century England when her father is called upon to keep the peace in English-occupied Wales. Immediately, it seems as if everything is falling apart:
“Coventry was bad enough when we came here last Easter. Filthy, crowded, not a patch of green anywhere. Only for a while, my father promised…Now this. Giving up his birthright to live among savages. Dragging me away from my two dearest friends and any chance at all of making a decent marriage. I’d think ruining a family would weigh heavier on a father’s conscience.”
At first, I attributed my interest to the fact that the book takes place in Wales, where both my name and some of my family come from. As soon as I started reading it, however, I knew that this was going to be a good book regardless of my interest in all things Welsh.
With much resistance on Cecily’s part, she and her father move to Wales. If it is possible for the spoiled, entitled Cecily to be any more miserable, she is. She hates the strange “tongue-pull” Gaelic that the Welsh speak, and doesn’t believe that the Welsh show her the proper respect. Wales is on the cusp of rebellion, and the English, including Cecily’s father, are brutally oppressive: they collect tax and food where the Welsh have no money or nourishment, and they treat the people terribly, hanging Welshmen at the drop of a hat.
To make matters worse, Cecily is a novi, which means that she is not considered a proper lady by the elitist English families who have already established themselves in Caernarvon. As her humiliation and anger deepens, she finds ways to unleash it on those who are less fortunate. Gwenhwyfar is a young Welsh girl who has also lost nearly everything, and she is unlucky enough to work under Cecily’s vehement watch. Cecily takes every chance to embarrass and punish the other girl, not realizing that if the English had not occupied Wales, Gwenhwyfar herself would be the lady of the house. As it is, Gwenhwyfar is struggling to keep her mother alive, and has already lost her father. She lives in hunger and poverty, but she, like Cecily, is proud and defiant.
The Wicked and the Just is told from the alternating perspectives of the two girls, and it makes for a truly fascinating work of historical fiction. As tensions mount in Wales, Cecily and “Gwinny” both struggle to survive–one socially, the other physically. The climax of the story is shocking and fascinating, and forces both characters to reconsider their prejudices and what it truly means to be “wicked” or “just.”
Kirkus has given this book a starred review and a “Best of 2012” stamp: “…Coats compellingly re-creates this occupation from both sides. It all leads to an ending so brutal and unexpected it will take readers’ breath away…Brilliant: a vision of history before the victors wrote it. ”
If you or someone you know (12 or older) enjoys historical, character-driven fiction, this is a must-read: if you don’t like historical fiction, this book might just change your mind.