Five Reasons to Read It #9: THE WICKED AND THE JUST

I had the opportunity last week to sit down and talk with the author of this marvelous work of YA historical fiction.  She taught me how to pronounce all the Welsh names (emphasis on the penultimate syllable, people), and she spoke with near-fanatical relish about the very creative public humiliations that medieval folks heaped upon each other.  She also gave me the compliment of saying that I “get” her work.  I take this to mean that I am now an authority on this novel, and so you all have to listen to me. Author’s orders. 

Even if I didn’t think J. Anderson Coats was a pretty cool person, I would still highly recommend her debut novel – which is brilliant.  Paperback to be released in September!

by J. Anderson Coats
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Five reasons to read it:

1.  Don’t know anything about 13th-century Wales?  You’re about to.  But you won’t even notice the learning as it happens.  Through the alternating viewpoints of her two teenaged female protagonists, Coats steeps the reader in the daily details of medieval life at Caernarvon castle in such a way that the world is rendered both fascinatingly new and also completely clear.  Her ability to do this reminds me of Karen Cushman’s, and that is no light compliment.

2.  My inner feminist sang and twirled and leaped about throughout this story, for a couple of specific reasons I won’t point out here, because they’d be spoilers.  Let’s just say that medieval times were not particularly fabulous for girls, and I loved the way Coats let both of her girls be real people – constrained by society, yes, but with emotions and desires recognizable to the modern teenager.

3. One girl (Cecily) is privileged and the other (Gwenhwyfar) is oppressed.  Gwenhwyfar is by far the easier to like; the injustice of her situation, together with her humor, her fury, and her loyalty to her family, make her an easy win.  However, it’s Cecily – the oppressor – whose voice is more often heard, and so she, too, must be compelling and lovable.  To make this privileged character sympathetic, one might assume that Coats would make Cecily into quite a nice person – a young saint.  Instead, she’s completely a teenager.  Cecily has moments of common sense and goodness, but she’s blind to the bigger picture.  And yet she is lovable, because she is real – and because those moments of common sense and goodness come at just the right times.

4.  Coats does not sugar coat what power does to people.  Everyone who gets a taste of power in this story abuses it, believing themselves justified.  If you enjoy, at all, a story of power dynamics, then you will gobble this one up.

5.  Do you hate it when authors give you pat endings, wherein everyone learns their lesson, all is remedied and all are redeemed?  Welcome to this book, where the author’s commitment to historical accuracy means that happy endings are impossible.  That’s not to say that one can’t walk away from this book with a sense of hope and satisfaction – I certainly did, because of Coats’s management of her characters and my investment in them as people.  But this is a brutal book.  Awesomely brutal.  Wait, don’t back away – where are you going?  Get back here or I’ll beat you with a cudgel. 


1 Comment

  1. I loved The Wicked and the Just, too–the way the author was able to make you simultaneously love and want to strangle both main characters was pretty amazing. Definitely made me think about perspective and the way I view people in my own life!

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