In The Wicked and the Just, debut novelist J. Anderson Coats intimately introduces readers to an aspect of British history they may not know. American readers, in particular, are often used to thinking of the country we now know as the United Kingdom as exactly that: united. In fact, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have their own histories of conflicts, stresses and strife.
Coats humanizes one of these conflicts—in the late 13th century—through the characters of two young women. Cecily is English, dragged with her father to Wales, where English lords have been enlisted to help manage the recent colonization of these fiercely independent people. Cecily’s predisposition to think of the Welsh people as babbling barbarians is heightened by her own loneliness. Up until the English King Edward took over Welsh rule, Cecily’s Welsh maid, Gwenhwyfar, would have been the one to live in the house rather than serve in it. Now, though, she and her family are barely staying alive, made invisible by the fortified wall that keeps the impoverished and angry Welshmen outside the city and further burdened by the policies that tax them heavily.
Coats’ thoroughly researched novel is vivid in its descriptions of everyday life in this medieval village town. It is also complex in its characterizations, as both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar—in addition to being headstrong and independent—are short-sighted, prejudiced and inclined to see the worst in others, especially each other. As the two girls come to an uneasy understanding, Cecily gradually realizes that her actions can have unintended consequences, and Gwenhwyfar comes to understand that her people may not be as powerless as she once thought. The Wicked and the Just is the best kind of historical fiction—one that couches still-relevant ideas and ideals in the vividly realized world of the past.