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Friday, November 9, 2012

The Wicked and the Just, written by J. Anderson Coats. Harcourt, Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Thomas Allen & Son. $19.99 ages 14 and up

"...I'd spit on him to see the look on this shrill harridan's face. She's naming borough and Crown officials, and she gives me such an eyestab that I echo them after her in as frosty a tone as I dare. Because my father may be a hamhanded oaf, but I'll not have it said that he raised a lackwit who is not clever and brave enough to hoodwink a shrew with vapor-headed compliance."

What?!? This is her debut novel! It hardly seems possible.

The voices of each of the two female narrators are so strong, the setting is locked in my memory despite never having been anywhere near Wales,  and  and the conditions for living in the late thirteenth century offer no enticements...not one!

Cecily has been dreaming, from a very young age, of being mistress of Edgeley Hall. Instead, her father tells her that they are moving house and going to Caernarvon, a walled town in Wales. Her father is being sent to keep the Welsh at bay. In return, he gets a home for he and his young daughter. Gwenhwyfar dreamed at one time of being lady of the house of Cecily's new home. Now, she is a servant there. Both are furious, and opinionated, and feisty, and very difficult to like!

Cecily is a spoiled brat who does all she can to make Gwinny miserable. She treats her with disdain, and belittles her every change she gets. But, Cecily has some problems of her own. It is tough fitting into Caernarvon society and her father insists that she accept the tutelage of the lady de Coucy. He will brook no argument against it. Cecily hates every minute spent with her, as is evidenced in the above quote.

Gwinny is dealing with caring for her terminally ill mother, and her younger brother. They have nothing, and blame the British for their misfortune. Her life is one of constant struggle just to exist. She lives in fear. They are not the only ones...all the Welsh residents are ready to revolt, given the corruption and vile living conditions that they must endure. There are plans afoot for revolt.

I came to empathize with both young women as events threw their lives into turmoil. They are similar in their brash independence, their strength of character and their being thrust into the most horrendous circumstances:

"And English says, even when you know it's coming, it still hurts. She squeezes my hand and whispers, I'm sorry...Gwennaver.
She's filthy and tattered and hungry, waiting on a cousin who may never arrive. Her hands are blistered raw and her cheeks windburned, but she looks me in the eye and she hasn't broken and she's sorry.
Now mayhap time can do its work."  
 
The British conquest of Wales is something I knew nothing about, and I found the historical aspect of the novel's events astounding. The author does not shirk from the brutality of the treatment of the Welsh or the sadistic results of the revolt. A historical note following the story provides a brief description of the British takeover of Wales, and its resulting conflicts.

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