Title: The Wicked and the Just
Author: J. Anderson Coats
Length: 342 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¾
The lives of two girls who feel they’ve lost everything–including estates they consider their birthrights–entertwine in thirteenth-century Wales when Cecily d’Edgeley’s father becomes an English burgess in the town of Caernarvon. Cecily feels her life has been ruined and dreams only of fancy gowns and returning to her childhood home, now occupied by her uncle. She struggles to adjust to living by new rules and among new people who are neither respectful nor submissive like the peasants at Edgeley. Meanwhile her new housemaid Gwenhwyfar, herself once the daughter of a lord, works to the bone simply for a meager supply of food and a few paltry coins. She hates “the brat” and all the English of Caernarvon, and she’s hardly the only one. As Cecily grumbles about learning to walk like a lady and innocently torments (she thinks) her Welsh servants, tension fed by anger, fear, and hunger brews among the persecuted native populace beyond the city walls–tension that, before long, must boil over.
This is not a plot-driven book, by anyone’s standard. Know that going in.
The Wicked and the Just is told from the dual points of view of a spoiled English girl and a vindictive, underprivileged Welsh one. Both POVs and characters are rather unpleasant though each is sympathetic in her own way…or at least ought to be. Cecily was born on an English estate and raised to believe that she would inherit it someday, but when her uncle returns from the Crusades, he claims the lordship, leaving Cecily’s father to make a life for themselves elsewhere. He chooses to become a burgess to a town in newly-conquered Wales, where a small fee grants him rights and privileges that would require many more sacrifices in England. The house into which they move comes with a native-born maid called Gwenhwyfar (called “Gwinny” by Cecily because she refuses to attempt to learn to pronounce her name properly, not that the author actually provides readers with said proper pronunciation herself*), whose father was a Welsh lord executed by the English for remaining loyal to his prince. Gwenhwyfar now struggles daily to feed her dying mother and younger brother while still saving enough money to pay the crippling English taxes. Cecily looks down her nose at the inferior “heathen” Welsh, while Gwenhwyfar loathes the English regardless of age or gender.
*Anyone familiar with Arthurian legends will recognize Gwenhwyfar as the original Welsh form of the name Guinevere, and the Welsh pronunciation–“Gwen-hwih-var”–isn’t far off from “Guinevere,” either.)
Gwenhwyfar, always on the brink of starving, always facing mistreatment and molestation at the hands of Englishmen and verbal abuse at those of her bratty teenaged mistress, has an understandably bitter, abrasive narrative voice, though it doesn’t make it any more pleasant to read from her POV. I found her more sympathetic from beginning to end, though I wish she’d softened just a little more towards Cecily over the couse of the book. Unfortunately, they have few meaningful conversations and therefore never have the opportunity to walk around in each other’s shoes despite their parallel backgrounds and storylines.
Cecily, though, never really redeems herself, even after the plot gets rolling and she begins to actually suffer. For a novel so rich with even small historical details, her voice always sounds very modern, which is a bit off-putting, and she always comes off as whiny, greedy, defensive, selfish, etc. She has occasional moments of likability, such as when she insists on going out to feed the poor against her father’s wishes, but for the most part she never sees beyond what SHE wants/needs. The author also makes her repeat certain phrases over and over, and while I think I understand her point in doing so, it still got on my nerves. (Gwenhwyfar does this a few times as well but not nearly as often as Cecily.)
Cecily’s behavior is also, frankly, reprehensible a lot of the time. Her ignorance of local customs gets a merchant driven out of business; she insists that Gwenwhyfar be “cart-whipped” for getting some petty revenge on her, then insists that “I didn’t do that” when faced with the physical consequences of the whipping. But she’s not all bad. She does have some truly sweet moments, though none of them were moral breakthroughs or epiphanies the way I thought they might be. She’s also treated her quite unfairly (though not in the same way that Gwenhwyfar is) by some of the characters, including by her self-absorbed drunkard of a father, who starts of kindly enough and becomes less and less so as the book goes on. Cecily’s stubborn selfishness and materialism is, of course, meant to highlight the overall plight of the native Welsh population, which it does quite well.
If even a fraction of what’s described in this book is true and accurate, then the English government was practicing the same kind of awful, systematic persecution it later turned on the Scottish and particularly on the Irish much earlier on the Welsh. A lot of what they did to the Welsh–keeping them “without the walls” of the town, taking their land and other property, physically assaulting them without consequences, making them pay for rights/privileges the English enjoyed for free, and so on–also reminded me of the way the Nazis began treating the Jewish population of Germany and Austria before the Holocaust began in earnest. Even the term Cecily uses for them, the Welshry, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the term “Jewry.”
In short, it made me morbidly curious and gave me a desire to learn a lot more about medieval Wales than I know now.
There’s very little romance in The Wicked and the Just, and it’s just as well; a romance would’ve been out-of-place and almost inapproprirate. None of the male Welsh characters deserved to be stuck with the snobbish, bratty Cecily, and Gwenhwyfar is too traumatized and too abrasive to be believably involved in a love story. Besides, romance is hardly the point of this novel.
Its biggest downfall, to me, is the lack of real interaction between the two main characters. I expected Cecily and Gwenhwyfar to begin to change each other’s perspectives in some way, not necessarily through friendship but somehow. Between them, they do experience some character growth, but not in the ways I expected, and not through ineracting with one another.
I also have a few other minor quibbles. J. Anderson Coats has a pronunciation guide for the names in her book on her website, but not actually in her book, where it would make more sense. She does include a few scenes wherein characters “sound out” some of the Welsh names, but again, not for her main Welsh character. Also, as meticulous as her research on medieval life clearly was, Coats doesn’t always offer readers a great deal of context clues. It took me almost three hundred pages, for instance, to understand that a “paternoster” was a rosary. Again, though, these were pretty minor problems that didn’t affect my reading experience too badly.
The Wicked and the Just isn’t exactly an enjoyable book. It’s not entertaining. It is intriguing though, certainly, and depressing, too. It makes you think. And there’s something to be said for that.