{Review} The Wicked and The Just by J. Anderson Coats

{Review} The Wicked and The Just by J. Anderson Coats

“To the Victor Belong the Spoils” and “Winner Takes All” are common sayings. It makes sense on some levels. Someone wins, someone loses. Winner takes, loser gives.

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

In the context of Monopoly, it’s all fun and games. But what about when it comes to occupying someone’s land in real life? Or taking over their culture? Stripping them or their home? And what about their livelihood? Or their mere survival? 

J. Anderson Coats thoughtfully navigates these thorny questions in her thoroughly-researched historical novel, The Wicked and the Just, which is told from the eyes of two girls on opposites ends of the English occupation of Wales during the late 13th century. 

Cecily, an English girl, has long fantasized about the day when she would become the Lady of Edgely Manor. But when a court rules in favor of her uncle Robert, she and her father are left landless.

Facing the choice of being steward of the manor of which he was formerly the master and becoming a burgess in Wales, with none of the financial and military obligations of a manor lord, Cecily’s father chooses the latter. He packs up their belongings in Coventry, where he and Cecily have been living while awaiting the verdict on Edgely manor, and they begin their life in Caernarvon, the heart of occupied Wales. 

Cecily’s uncle, the courtroom victor, has taken the spoils of her life, which consists of Edgely Manor and her family and friends in Coventry. She must now live in fear of the Welsh, whom she believes are rustic savages (not unlike how pioneers viewed Native Americans). Not to mention that (gasp!) she no longer has a dowry with which to attract a husband.  

Cecily believes herself to be a victim.

Ironically, Cecily is so wrapped up in the perceived injustice of her life that she fails realize that she is occupying what used to be someone else’s home, a Welsh person’s home, lost due to the English occupation. At no point does does she realize that some other girl may have dreamed of becoming the lady of her Welsh home, just as she dreamed of becoming the Lady of Edgely Manor. 

That girl is Gwynhwefar.

Now relegated to being a servant in what is now Cecily’s household, Gwynhwefar (Gwinny) and her brother Gruffyd (Griffith) have lost the spoils of their life to the English. They live outside the city walls in a barely habitable shack with their very ill mother. They barely have enough to eat. They don’t have enough money to pay the taxes that the English king has imposed. Griffith is lucky if he can find day labor, much less the steady work that requires huge bribes that he cannot afford.

Gwinny is an actual victim.

Up to this point, The Wicked and the Just sounds like the perfect setup for a basic good (the oppressed Welsh) vs. evil (the occupying English) tale that would be full of flat, one dimensional characters and a happy ending. The Welsh rise up and throw off the yolk of the English forever and ever! Tormented Gwinny becomes the lady of Caernarvon castle while haughty Cecily receives her comeuppance and has to walk back to England with nothing! Yayyyyyyyyy! *throws confetti*

But…we know from history that Wales, while it had its share of rebellions, is peacefully part of the United Kingdom today. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Which means that at some point, the Welsh and English must have reached some sort of understanding that allowed them to live and work together. Via the dual narratives of Cecily and Gwinny, (minor spoiler alert) we are privy to the first inklings of that understanding.

So instead of a predictable, feel-good Hollywood story, J. Anderson Coats refreshingly gives us Characters that we can Actually Care About (CACA).

I mentioned to Noelle awhile back that Cecily struck me as having an abolitionist mentality (They’re not property! But they’re still not our equals!), which simultaneously makes her (in Noelle’s words) endearing and infuriating. I found myself inspired by Cecily’s awareness of the inhumane and unjust treatment of the Welsh at the hands of the English, yet incredibly flabbergasted and frustrated by her belief that the Welsh were not worthy to meet her eyes. And then we have Gwinny, struggling to survive, rightfully full of anger over her horrible circumstances, but seething to the point that she is blind to anything but her need for revenge.

The somehow parallel yet juxtaposed journeys of Cecily and Gwinny make for a fascinating read, even if history’s not necessarily your thing.

And while The Wicked and the Just takes place in 1293-1294, what I found the most fascinating was how their situation is still completely relevant in our world today. There are occupied countries with people of different cultures squeezed into the same small space. There is still racism, discrimination, and ethnocentrism. This connection of past events to the present, for me, is what makes history a favorite subject despite being removed from the classroom for a decade. 

Hooray to J. Anderson Coats for reviving my inner history dork!

FNL Character rating: The contentious relationship between Tyra Collette and Lyla Garrity.

{Buy The Wicked and the Just at Amazon | BN | Powell’s}

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. No “goodies” or compensation were received in exchange for this honest review.

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