If I’m to be ruled, may it be by those who see.
The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats is different from most books I read. For one thing, it’s historical fiction–set in 13th century Wales. And, well, really that’s all that makes it different. I don’t think I’ve ever read historical fiction set in this era before and certainly not in that particular locale.
The basic premise is that Cecily’s dad moves them to Caernarvon from Edgeley Hall. She is none too pleased by this since she has to leave her best friends and potential suitors behind. You know who else isn’t pleased? Gwenhwyfar, the Welsh servant who has to wait on Cecily and her dad.
What I Liked
– The setting. Like I said, totally new to me. I was unfamiliar with the historical context/time period so it was fascinating to think about how the British went around imposing their imperial will on oh so many countries and not just the US and India and parts of Africa, etc.
– The language of oppression is the same all the time and everywhere.
– Something Coats really brought to life for me was just how unjust, humiliating, and unbearable the taxes imposed on the Welsh were. I teach Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” almost every semester and when he talks about how the English have taxed the Irish into starvation, I have a general understanding of what that means, but Coats makes me SEE and EXPERIENCE it. So for that alone the book was worth reading for me.
– I really like the way Cecily and Gwen’s relationship is handled and especially the way the narrative is shaped around the two girls. The book shifts between both of their points of view, and through that narrative structure, Coats shows how invisible servants and lower class people are to those they serve (unless they screw up, of course). Cecily rarely, if ever, mentions Gwen even when the reader knows Gwen is around. However, almost all of Gwen’s sections are explicitly reactions to or mentions of how she is treated by Cecily.
– There’s this sense of impending doom in the narrative. The reader knows it’s a pressure cooker situation, but Cecily is so blind to what’s going on around her. What I like about this approach is that (a) it shows Cecily’s privilege, but (b) it also shows how much she’s kept in the dark. She’s willfully ignorant in some ways, but in other ways, she is clueless and her father fails to inform her of all kinds of things about the way her new town works as opposed to her old.
– Cecily’s relationship with her father is handled brilliantly.
– If you wonder why women were called busybodies, etc., just take a look at the fact that Cecily has nothing to do during most of the narrative because she has no education so can’t read/write, and she has no trade/job. She spends most of her time bored and then starts stirring up trouble just because she can. The narrative never explicitly says anything about her lack of education, but if the reader starts wondering why Cecily doesn’t read a book or something, it’s like a little lightbulb moment. She has needlepoint. That’s it.
– I love the tension between the nouveau riche (Cecily) and her more established neighbors who find her unmannered–adds some levity and garners some sympathy for Cecily.
What I Didn’t Like
– Cecily is a hard character to like. The saving grace here is that I could tell she wasn’t privy to what was going around her, which doesn’t make her sympathetic but does add a layer of mystery to the text that kept me reading. I wanted to know when she would figure it out and how/if knowing would change her.
– I mentioned that the narrative switches points of view, which is fine. What isn’t fine is that the only marker of the change is that the font shifts. That’s it. No chapter headings, no label at the top of a new section with the girls’ names. Nothing. It didn’t take me long to figure out, but it was completely jarring.
One of the members of the book club I’m in read on her Kindle and the font change doesn’t even show up on there, so it was even more jarring for her.
– While I was fascinated by the look into all of the characters’ lives and relationships, I never really fell in love with any of the characters.
In conclusion: Well written historical fiction with excellent world building and characters, focusing on a time and place I rarely read about in fiction.