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Middle Age Girl Power: Grave Mercy vs The Wicked and the Just

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.

Grave Mercy, Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin, April 2012
Reviewed from final copy

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, J. Anderson Coats
Harcourt, April 2012
Reviewed from final copy

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?

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. Karyn Silverman says

    Because I know someone will ask, the top two books in the readership poll are The Fault in Our Stars, with 124/147 readers, and Code Name Verity with 103/147. If popularity within our small sample determined the slate, we’d have a top 5 already!

  2. I read and enjoyed both of these, but I don’t think either makes my top 5. I agree that Grave Mercy isn’t deep enough thematically and I also thought the sentence level writing was weak. Major points for world-building though! I also agree that The Wicked and the Just REALLY needed an author’s note!

  3. Agreed with you on both counts. I liked Grave Mercy, but then the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by its thinness. I did like the romance, but it was just swoony–I didn’t feel like it had any real substance to it.

    While with Wicked & Just everyone ws just SO unlikeable, which to me seemed like a flaw from the reader’s point of view. I’m not sure that this is an argument the Printz committee can take into account, but historical fiction is hard enough to get people to read without making it almost unremittingly bleak. Even Cecily’s ‘happy ending’ at the end didn’t feel convincing. I don’t have a more literary argument against it, at least not at my finger tips.

  4. Kristin Casale says

    I’m going to state the obvious here: based on the Top 5 from the sample alone, it was a really great year for girls in YA. All of those books include one or more female protagonists. I didn’t like Grave Mercy. I thought the writing was dry and clunky. It was a book I wanted to like more than I did, and the characters felt flat to me. I haven’t read Fault in our Stars, but the remaining books in the Top 5 from the poll were all really good if not great. I’m still pulling for Code Name Verity. Girls, dare to be friends! I’m so glad there were so many great books about girls this year.

  5. Thanks for putting your finger on so many of my amorphous thoughts about TW&TJ.

    However, the copy I checked out of the library has a 4.5 page long historical note (Pp. 338-342), though no bibliography or source notes. I did think the historical note helped and I did read it straight after finishing the book–Karyn and Cecilia, did you read ARCs or finished copies? Maybe the note wasn’t finished in time to go in the galleys?

  6. Karyn Silverman says

    Thanks, Miriam! I will update to reflect that.

  7. I’m really surprised that you found the characters so unlikeable in WICKED AND THE JUST. Obviously everyone was deeply flawed, but I thought Coats did an amazing job of letting me sympathize with the positions of just about every character, whether English or Welsh. It’s been a while since I read this one so I can’t point to anything specific but I thought that character was one of the book’s biggest strengths, aside from the tremendously interesting historical time period and plot. Hmm.

  8. Laura Canon says

    I had some of the same problems with unlikeability as well. Overall I liked TWAJ and enjoyed reading it but some things just stuck out at me, and one of them was Cecily having a spoiled nature combined with the fact that she evidently believed in justice and doing the right thing in the abstract (telling the truth about who kidnapped the baby, for instance). That seemed a stretch. If you’re going to have a truly unlikeable heroine it has to go all the way, I’m afraid. But I should also say that I like books that are unafraid of being unlikeable and unfraid of a pretty dreadful ending, which this has. It really impressed me overall.

  9. Maybe that’s what happened, that I read an ARC and the note wasn’t included…I work at a bookstore and often can’t remember if I read the final version or an ARC that was sitting on our shelf…or perhaps I just wanted the note to be longer and more detailed!

    I agree with Kristin that it’s been a banner year for girls in YA! I just started Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, which adds another protagonist to the list of strong females.

  10. @Laura – but isn’t that a much more realistic character? In fact, isn’t that how we *all* are? – we what to do the right thing, even believe we are doing the right thing, only to find out that often we fall short or are doing exactly the wrong thing. Or maybe I’ve just revealed too much about myself . . .

  11. Laura Canon says

    Yes, but she is also going against what her community and family think of as right and wrong, e.g. “who cares about the Welsh, they’re all barbarians.” Where she got that kind of moral courage is never explained, it’s just assumed she has it. Mind you, when I was reading the book I accepted it because it was one of the few likeable things about the character — otherwise I might have just put the book down.
    My copy, from the library, had a historical note.

  12. The Wicked and the Just is pretty high up on my personal list. I think the unlikeable characters are something that would deter readers but doesn’t seem to factor into the criteria, and I did find them to be more likeable as the story went on. I don’t think it’s as distinguished as Code Name Verity or Seraphina, but I think it’s got a shot.

  13. Nice article! I haven’t read either book, but “assassin nuns” has a great ring to it! For the record, medieval people did have cats as pets (see, for example, the 15th century French text, The Distaff Gospels, for references of how to use pet cats in homebrew magical remedies), but a spinster was someone who did spinning with a distaff (i.e., no negative connotations that have to do with being unmarried). Not sure they had “old maid” as a term, and if they did, I’m not sure it would be pejorative, especially if you had the means to support yourself. I’m a medievalist and children’s lit author and enthusiast, and I love it when my two interests are combined into one, so your article brightened my day! Thanks for writing about these books.

  14. Just read and enjoyed this book, and as with Mark and Jess, I find the criticisms here sort of puzzling. Not that it’s a perfect book, but it’s in my top ten, I think. That both protagonists were often unlikeable was one of its strengths, I thought. In alternating chapters, you’d be sympathizing with one character and uncomfortable with the other–and then the perspective would switch on the next page. It really created a sense of drama and uncertainty for me that matched the book’s plot and setting. It’s far more interesting that Gwenhwyfar has some truly unlikeable, almost villainous moments than if (as it would be in most books) she was just beleaguered, misunderstood, Cinderellaesque, etc. And Cecily seemed to me to be struggling with the strong, unexamined racism she had always been brought up with versus the values of justice and mercy that were also strong in her upbringing. That’s a classic teenaged struggle. Speaking of “classic”, while it was occasionally a little coy, maybe, I thought the book did a great job of suggesting ways that young women might be the same in any time and place.

    I know it’s been covered now that there is an author’s note in the finished work. But why would it be a “significant lack” if there wasn’t one? This was a detailed note, and I hope it satisfied those who craved one, but I thought Coats did a better job than many of giving a lot of context within the novel itself (which I prefer to an author’s note; I think most of the time these are unnecessary at best, and weaken the book at worst, though I have found I’m in the minority there–maybe something to do with all the librarians and teachers around here). As far as I have found, author’s notes on historical fiction are quite a recent invention, especially lengthy notes of the kind that seem to be de rigueur lately. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re automatically bad, but I do kind of wonder why what seems to me to be an invented need has become so ubiquitous. I would have been more pleased to see a glossary than an author’s note, but I was okay in this case with the words I didn’t know and figuring them out (probably incorrectly) from context clues, but I know that isn’t comfortable or desirable for everybody. (It sometimes isn’t for me, either.)

    Overall: a great example of… high historical fiction (akin to high fantasy). I thought it was kind of like The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Granted, it lacks that book’s subtlety, but shares a kind of believability in the human relations, and a setting you can practically smell.

  15. Karyn Silverman says

    Wendy, I found the lack of glossary a problem, and lack of historical note would have been a problem, for the reasons I raised in the review — without any context, I think the struggles are very hard to understand. Taxes and money are at the heart of this conflict, but it was hard to follow, through the eyes of two limited perspective narratives, who was doing what to whom and why. The note (now that I’ve read it) and my dictionary explorations were necessary to really get some of the thematic scope. This is not a period of history I know well, and floundering for context while trying to follow the story diminished my ability to follow the story itself, much less find the deeper strands at play.

    But really, my bigger issues are with Gwehwyfar’s voice, which I just don’t understand; why the fragments? Why the grammatical oddities? I see that everyone who disagrees with me is tackling my opinion on the unlikable characters, which I totally call myself on as emotional! Yes, I disliked them both, but I know that doesn’t rate, and I knew others would feel differently. The reason I think this misses the top 5 is tied up in Gwenhwyfar’s voice and Cecily’s possibly anachronistic attitudes.

  16. @Karyn, so I’m having some cognitive dissonance here because over on my blog, my mom (and apparently many others) are taking Libba Bray’s DIVINERS to task for spelling out too much of the historical context of the 20s for the reader, while over here you’re talking about having too little context. (I don’t mean to impugn you–or my mom–I don’t know your thoughts on DIVINERS yet, anyway, I just find it interesting to see the contrast).

    In any case, I admit that I found myself reaching for wikipedia from time to time as I read the novel, but I’m not sure I can call that a flaw. If I knew less about WWII, wouldn’t I have been doing that with CNV? Or mightn’t someone who is baffled about the various types of cancer have needed to look up stuff from TFiOS? I guess the point is that it is, of course, a delicate balance, and I don’t see how any author is going to please everyone. Also, is it really such a big deal to have to fire up the computer while we’re reading? I do it all the time just for tiny details that seem interesting to me.

    As for the voices, I’m not sure I understand your objection to Gwenhwyfar. It seemed to me like just a straightforward novelistic choice to me–every narrator needs a distinct voice, and that’s the one Coats chose for Gwenhwyfar. I’ve read whole novels written in styles not too far removed from that one.

    I still would like to maintain that Cecily was not anachronistic, but I’d have to do a more thorough reread, and perhaps some research to back that up.

  17. This is all anecdotal, but I didn’t look anything up while reading; I might have, just out of interest, if I’d had more time that week. Like Mark, I don’t see a problem with that, and one of my general objections to author’s notes is I don’t think every question (or maybe any question) needs to be answered in an author’s note; I thought I was given all the information I needed in the text, which is where I want it, if it’s done well. But in any case, if the plot or setting is difficult to understand while reading, is an author’s note going to help with that? That’s why I prefer glossaries (if they’re going to be included) at the beginning. Many times I’ve finished a book and found the glossary and thought “that would have been helpful to know about half a book ago”.

    Karyn, for the reasons you state originally, I’m inclined to trust Coats on Cecily not being anachronistic–she seems to have been right about everything else.

  18. James Cornwell says

    Has anyone on this thread read any YA historical fiction they REALLY liked? Especially one with medieval or Renaissance theme? Or even one they were okay with recommending?

    We’ve already found Karen Cushman’s stuff (Catherine, Called Birdy; Midwife’s Apprentice; Mathilda Bone; etc.), plus Door in the Wall, Adam of the Road, Proud Taste for Scarlet and Minniver (all REALLY OLD), Pagan’s Crusade (worst title for medieval book EVER), and the Ramsay Scallop.

    We’ve written a book to fill this gap (YA, 16-yr-old boy protagonist, late 12th century setting, with fighting action, humor, and friendship themes), and would like to hear what people have to say about the topic in general… Thanks in advance! –James

    • I just finished GILT by Katherine Longshore a couple months ago–it’s YA historical fiction set in Henry VIII’s England. Very well written–highly recommend!

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