Grave Mercy and The Wicked and the Just are, in so many ways, polar opposites.
But how often do we see YA books set in the Middle Ages? Not very, which makes it almost impossible not to think of these in a compare and contrast essay. So that’s what you get.
Both feature strong female heroines, well defined settings, and a fascinating story. Oh, and divided nations (France/Brittany and England/Wales), strangely fitting since I’m putting the final edits in to the accompaniment of the election results rolling across the TV. But that’s about where the compare part ends, really, because mostly these are very different books.
Let’s start with crowd-pleaser Grave Mercy (of the 147 respondents to the readership poll, 71 folks have read this, making it tied with Seraphina and Bitterblue for third most read book in our admittedly limited sample).
First, I should concede that it’s so late middle ages as to be practically Renaissance. Also, it’s fantasy (whatever the medieval version of urban fantasy would be, this is that), although the religious setting (with a convent dedicated to St. Mortain, an “old saint,” actually a pagan god hiding under the aegis of Christian worship, at the center of things) was so convincing that I had to check whether this was at least partially based in actual folklore. It appears to be made up wholesale, and displays some pretty splendid world building.
Despite the fabulous setting, in both senses of fabulous, I’m not sure that Grave Mercy is really in it for the long haul — the spunky heroine is a bit of a trope, and the writing style is sometimes repetitive (Ismae notes her father’s abusive ways and her desire to outwit him or escape him in almost every paragraph of the first few pages, for instance).
But it doesn’t matter, except in the context of Printzliness. Grave Mercy does a lot really really well, and it’s a delight to read. It’s complexly plotted, with machinations and plots and counterplots (somewhat historical, although much reimagined), and how can a reader resist Ismae, the assassin nun who has suffered so much and finds herself through the course of the novel?
Also, did you catch the big one? Assassin nuns. ASSASSIN NUNS, people! Really, most readers won’t want anything more than that. It’s the shortest booktalk ever, and it works. Every. Single. Time.
Pure win for readability, and more nuanced than “assassin nuns” implies, but… I’m still not sure about the depth.
Or am I just disparaging it because of the slightly sappy romantic elements?
I really really enjoyed this one, and then promptly forgot all the details aside from Mortain. All that complex plotting? Poof, disappeared. Happy romantic ending? Remembered, but as the thing that took entirely too much page time and detracted from the plot. I loved this in the moment, and I think it has a long and happy commercially successful life ahead of it — and I am certainly looking forward to the companion (same setting, different main character, apparently overlapping time frame). But something is not saying Printz to me: other books are deeper, if not as widely read.
Speaking of deeper…
The Wicked and the Just is, as far as I can tell, a very carefully researched, earnest piece of historical fiction.
I really wanted to like this one, and I was fascinated by the time and the history, which will be relatively unfamiliar to most American readers, but it’s hard when there is not a single character to like. I don’t think this is accidental: Coats is tackling heavy thematic and historical issues, and these are good characters for exploring those issues. But it made for a less than enjoyable reading experience, and that emotional response probably colored my sensitivity to the flaws.
But enough about my emotions; let’s look at the writing.
Two voices narrate in turns, spoiled English Cecily, whose father has essentially purchased his position in recently conquered Wales, and (deservedly) angry Gwynhwyfar (Gwinny), born into the Welsh nobility and now a starving servant in Cecily’s household.
Cecily’s narrative mostly works, although the balance between showing and telling when you have a first person narrator revealing her own faults is a tricky one. Sometimes it’s hard to believe a character could be so blind to her own unpleasantness while so accurately noting the dreadful behavior of others. Other times, the balance is successful, and Cecily’s self-deluding narrative and inaccurate sense of self is almost chilling. Her self absorption and gradual awareness that the world is a complex, messy place form the center of the emotional journey, but the horrors that she witnesses towards the end are almost overwhelming and it’s a little bit of a stretch to believe that this self-centered brat so successfully grows up.
When Cecily’s voice doesn’t work are the moments of anachronistic sensibility. Occasionally her voice drifted close to a parody of mean girl conventions in medieval garb; you could almost imagine an SNL or College Humor skit, say, “Shakespeare’s The Shrewish Girls of Caernarvon.” These lapses were only occasional, but more prevalent towards the beginning, which weakened Cecily as a character. There was also a moment when she imagines herself “an old maid surrounded by twenty cats,” which was both anachronistic in attitude (see Jones, Bridget, fears of being eaten by an Alsatian) and struck me as possibly historically off — weren’t old women surrounded by cats considered witches? Weren’t cats not generally pets in that era? Now, Coats has the history background and I don’t, and there were a few moments I paused at but when I checked it seemed were historically sound, so this may not be fair, but these moments popped me out of the past and did some damage to my suspension of disbelief.
I had far more of a problem, from a literary perspective, with Gwenhwyfar’s voice. For no discernable reason, she speaks in fragments much of the time, in sentences that are truncated and awkward. My grammatical language has faded over the years and I’m straining to remember the terms for what is left out, but sentences that should begin with “I” begin instead with the verb (“could strangle her”; “promised Gryffud”). Gwenhwyfar’s voice is also a huge source of historical information, imparted with so little context and in her sometimes difficult to parse sentences that much of the history — history that is critical in understanding the thematic scope of this novel, about possession and dispossession, the nature of power, the ugliness of war — becomes unknowable to the reader.
And there’s no afterword or historical note, which is a significant lack in anything this deeply steeped in history; a glossary was also desperately needed, so that readers don’t have to leave the text to find out what the text is talking about (levelooker, amercing: the language at the heart of the conflict between the Welsh and the English is language the reader really needs to access readily).
On the other hand, this is clearly a carefully researched novel. Although my own lack of context makes it hard to be sure how effectively it reflects attitudes or daily life, the facts of history as far as I could ascertain are all correct. It’s a harrowing story, especially the scenes toward the end when the Welsh rise up and sack Caernarvon; the image of Cecily’s father hanging will haunt me for a long while.
And it doesn’t put the history first; the story of these two girls and their changing fortunes, their animosity and grudging mutual respect, the flashes of potential camaraderie derailed by the ugly political realities and atrocities visited by their respective groups — this is powerful stuff.
So despite the flaws, I do think this is an admirable and impressive work, but in the end I think the missteps pull it out of the potential top 5, because it aims higher than it hits — but I’ll also be looking for Coat’s next book with interest, and this may well be another serious contender for the Morris.
With me? Against me? Either of these make your top 10?