J. Anderson Coat's debut novel, The Wicked and the Just, has a lot of elements that I admire in a story: vivid voice, detailed historical setting, castles, a hint of romance. At the same time, however, it tackles a difficult historical period in ways that made me both recoil from the violence but also empathize with characters on both side of the divide.
When the story opens, Cecily is furious with her father for uprooting her from England and moving to Wales where has the chance at a relatively inexpensive holding. But it's so far from everyone and everything Cecily knows and loves, and she's secretly sure they will be murdered in their beds.
Her first encounter with their house servant, Gwenhyfar, is not very reassuring as to the attitudes of the Welsh. If it weren't for the interference of their housekeeper and Cecily's father, Cecily would have the impudent wench out on the streets.
As Cecily struggles to find her place in this new community, she gradually comes to a greater understanding of Gwenhyfar and the Welsh people--but is her new compassion enough to allow her to survive the coming upheaval?
Much as I liked Cecily's voice, Gwenhyfar's is the most striking. Her situation is painfully ironic--after the English conquest ten years earlier, she is now serving in the very house she might once have been mistress of. The English have deprived her of her father--and the strict (and often unjust) laws of the city burghers make it nigh impossible for Gwenhyfar to support her ailing mother and younger brother. She's seen too much pain and starvation among the Welsh to like the English--particularly Cecily.
The story is gorgeously written and the historical research (to my limited perspective) is impressive. It was easy for me to feel that I had been transported to another world. But the prickly relationship between Cecily and Gwenhyfar was hard to read, and the story was often hard to read--not because of any lack of skill on the author's part, but because the deprivations of the Welsh, and then the subsequent violent attacks on the English, were difficult to stomach. Which may, in fact, simply be another tribute to the author's skill.