Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
Release Date: April 17, 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 352
Received: ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


From Goodreads:

Cecily’s father has ruined her life. He’s moving them to occupied Wales, where the king needs good strong Englishmen to keep down the vicious Welshmen. At least Cecily will finally be the lady of the house.

Gwenhwyfar knows all about that house. Once she dreamed of being the lady there herself, until the English destroyed the lives of everyone she knows. Now she must wait hand and foot on this bratty English girl.

While Cecily struggles to find her place amongst the snobby English landowners, Gwenhwyfar struggles just to survive. And outside the city walls, tensions are rising ever higher—until finally they must reach the breaking point.


Why I considered DNF-ing

The beginning of this book is so slow. Not much happens, and I'm very impatient. It's all written with a bunch of old-timey words thrown in and while this definitely did help establish the historical backdrop, sometimes I had absolutely no clue what was being said.

The book opens with Cecily's first person POV, and she is a complete brat. She's always thinking something awful about the people around her, she pouts, throws fits, and seriously needs someone to shove her off her high horse. She isn't even nice to her father (though, to be fair, he isn't all that great himself).

Then, without warning, the narrative switched in the next chapter to Gwinny's POV. And she's worse than Cecily! Her sentences are fragmented and weird. I imagine this is to reflect her lack of fluency in English? (She's Welsh). Or maybe not? I'm not sure, but it turned me off because it made her sound dumb. Her barely contained RAGE made it very uncomfortable being in her head.

So why didn't I DNF?

Despite all that, I found myself sucked into the book. I hesitate to say "story," because this isn't the kind of book where there is a neat plot-problem-resolution. Usually I prefer clearly structured books over the looser "slice of life" approach of The Wicked and the Just, but J. Anderson Coats' writing was so vivid that I was completely absorbed in even the mundane day-to-day events.

Little things like how parents related to their children, the social structures, clothing, chores, laws, and on and on were all described in great detail. There was a flood of information, but it never once felt like a lesson. There weren't long lectures about any of this stuff. Instead, J. Anderson Coats really throws the reader into the middle of life back then and expects you to sink or swim.

I imagine non-historical fiction fans might be bored stiff, but I was entranced. The Wicked and the Just is everything I hope for when reading historical fiction. This really is a gem of a book for fans of Historical fiction with a capital H.

I learned a ton of things about the late 1200s and the relations between the recently conquered Welsh and the conquering English. Events are seen from both sides through the contrasting narrators, and in the end I can sympathize equally with the Welsh and the English.

Also, those characters I didn't like at first?

They grew on me. I can't say that I like them in that "I want to be friends" kind of way (though Cecily is definitely sitting at my lunch table so we can have a wicked gossip session), but I respect, sympathize, and care very much about them. They truly came alive off the page and I cheered along with their triumphs while their sorrows stabbed me in the gut.

Gwinny's narrative did smooth out as the book went on, and though it was never entirely "normal," I didn't have any trouble connecting with her. I liked seeing her dance around a maybe-friendship-maybe-not with Cecily and the love she had for her brother was achingly bittersweet.

Cecily's chapters remained my favorites. I loved being in her awful little head and she made me laugh out loud a number of times at the brilliantly hilarious thoughts she related. She may not be nice, but she is brutally honest and I always find that refreshing in a character. She also has a strict sense of justice that I appreciated immensely.

What about the body count?

One of the big things that grabbed my attention was the promise of a body count. Is it just me, or does the prospect of a body count instantly make things more interesting? I interpreted that to mean there would be a killer on the loose and there would be some sort of mystery to solve. I'm not really sure where I got that idea from, and really it couldn't be further from the truth.

There IS a body count, and it is gruesomely high, but it has nothing to do with any serial killings or mysteries. Even though I was disappointed I didn't get a murder mystery, that disappointment was soon forgotten because what did happen made my jaw drop to the ground in shock. Which is definitely a good thing.

But you're going to have to wait until after page 300 for the explosions of death to start. (Not literal explosions.) Oh, and a warning to animal lovers: a dog dies.

A note on that title

Aside from taking a look at an event in history, I wondered what the point of this book really was. If you want to get really analytical, then there's a ton of fodder here in the form of explorations of relationships, social class, war, subjugation, and so on.

But at its root, I think the title really sums it up perfectly: this book is about justice and the wickedness in life that warrants it.

I really liked how this theme was integrated throughout the book. It gave the whole story a spine of steel and made me give out major respect points to various characters. It also helped highlight how harsh the times were and how horrible people can be to one another.

Bottom line

I can't wait to read another book by J. Anderson Coats! The Wicked and the Just is a standalone (though there could easily be a sequel, and I would so read that!), but I'm crossing my fingers she writes another book soon, preferably another historical fiction. This is a book worth noting.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about The Wicked and the Just that I haven't addressed? 
Feel free to ask in the comments!

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  1. Sorry, can't deal with that part. You know which one.
    and it's a bummer because you made me curious about the book but meh, no way I'm reading a bout That.
    *clutches dog to self*

    1. If it helps, it's very minor. But I totally understand :)

  2. I feel almost exactly like you about this book. I really liked it, but I don't think non historical fiction lovers would enjoy it. I respected Cecily and Gwinny by the end, although I didn't really like them. I understood them.

  3. Hmmm...interesting! I'm really curious about this because you almost DNF. I can't stand slow starts, but glad you ended up liking it. The theme sounds good too. I'm definitely adding this to my list. Great review :)

  4. I've actually been waiting on your review of this, before I decide whether to read it or not, as I know you're another historical fan. Happily, I've decided 'yes'. All that detail of daily life you mention non-historical fans will be bored by? I'm going to eat that up with a spoon; I love learning more about the past. And now I have to know what dropped your jaw. When you read so many books, it's hard to be surprised by plot developments, so when it happens, you have to give the writer their due.

  5. You pretty much summed up my feeling with this review, Small! The dynamic characters made this book for me. I loved how Coats changed my feeling for them, especially who got my sympathy. I also really think that the title of the book fits perfectly for this book and its characters.

  6. I've been waiting to see some reviews on this book because I'm kind of curious about it. I absolutely love historical fiction novels and you just sold me, I love the details of the daily life in olden times in books, it really gets me interested. I'm not sure how I'll feel about the characters after reading your descriptions, but I definitely want to check this out now.

  7. Man oh man oh man!! Small, great review! Clear thoughts...and you totally brought me into how you felt! I neeeeed to read this NOW. Too bad my library hasn't gotten it and I lost my NetGalley. Stupid me. But I WILL read this book, gosh darn it!

    Thanks for the review!! :D

  8. This is not my favorite time period. In fact, I'd say it's probably one of my least favorites. I think Rummanah (I can't remember who it was if it wasn't her) had the same kind of conflicting feeling about this book. What caught my eye is that it's a stand-alone. No, seriously. It made me gasp aloud.

    PS, Can I come to the gossip session?

    1. You can totally come to the gossip session :) The time period isn't my favorite either, but I still liked learning a lot of stuff I didn't know.

  9. Wow, I'm really curious about this book now! I've never read that far back in historical fiction, I think... My favorite, obviously, is the 17/18th century. Still, wouldn't mind reading this.

    Great review!

  10. I'm kind of with Ruby, in that the time period doesn't appeal to me. I love historicals, but I think it helps to have some kind of interest in the time or area discussed. I don't know. We'll see.

  11. Okay, that's it--you've convinced me to read this book! For some reason the premise/cover/etc just weren't grabbing me, and I hadn't read any reviews that changed my mind. But hearing about your hesitation at first and then how the book gradually sucked you in makes me think I might end up having the same reaction as you. Thanks for the review!

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  12. Small, I love when historical fiction novels give you information without making you feel as if they're shoving it at you. I never thought this one was something I'd want to read until I saw another review for it which also ended up really liking this one though they too mentioned having trouble connecting with Cecily. Now with your thumbs up, I'm going to bump this one closer to the top of my wishlist.

  13. Wow, I think it is interesting that it went from a almost DNF to a 4.5 star read. Sometimes a slow beginning can give me an attitude for the rest of the book and it can be tough to overcome that. Great review.


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