The Wicked and the Just had me from the first page:
Tonight at supper, over capon and relish, my father ruined my life.
He smiled big, scrubbed his lips with the end of his cloak, and said, "We’re moving house."
"Thank the Blessed Virgin!" I sat up straighter and smoothed my kirtle. "I’m weary to thimbles of Coventry. Will we be back at Edgeley Hall in time for the Maypole?"
"No, sweeting. We’re not going back to Edgeley. We’re moving to Caernarvon."
"What in God’s name is that?"
"It’s a town in Wales."
I’m in my chamber now. I will never speak to him again.
Unless he buys me a new pelisson for the journey.
It's funny, because while the first page sounds a bit like a mash-up of Louise Rennison and Karen Cushman, and while there are undercurrents of humor in Cecily's voice almost all the way throughout (even though Cecily herself very often doesn't see the humorous side of what she's saying), the tone of the book—and the storyline—is ultimately quite dark.
And by quite dark, I mean VERY VERY DARK INDEED. It's set in Caernarvon, Wales, during the 1290s: which, as the author said in her Historical Note at the end, "was a great place to live—as long as you were English."
At the beginning of the story, Cecily is a spoiled, entitled rich girl, and her move to Wales only serves to make her behavior and attitude worse. She is, after all, miserable. She's in a new, unfamiliar place, and she's suddenly at the bottom of the social hierarchy (well, higher than the Welsh, but they don't count): so she takes her misery, discomfort, and rage out on servants and anyone else in her way... as long as they're of a lower rank than her. Which is, to say the least, a massively unattractive trait in a protagonist. It's quite possible that some readers will find her so extremely unpleasant to be around that they won't finish the book. She's that hateful for that long.
However. While that's a completely understandable reaction, those readers will be missing out. Because The Wicked and the Just is a pretty damn super book. Cecily's narrative is regularly interrupted by chapters narrated by her new servant, Gwenhwyfar (Cecily refers to her as Gwinny):
Now it's spring, English are here, and I could kill the brat a hundred different ways.
Could strangle her with one of her foolish ribbons. Dump hemlock in her breakfast porridge. Push her down the stairs. Would be no different than killing a rat.
She is English.
The lot of them should burn.
Gwenhwyfar is just as angry as Cecily—it could be argued that she's more so, actually—but while Cecily is angry for purely selfish reasons, the source of Gwinny's rage is much easier to empathize with: she's seen her land conquered and co-opted by the English, who mistreat, abuse, and cheat the Welsh at every opportunity. Although there are occasional moments of warmth and humor, from her perspective, life is dirty, smelly, violent, unyielding and unfair.
It would be very wrong, though, to suggest that either Cecily or Gwenhwyfar can be easily categorized as simply purely awful or purely saintly—Cecily treats her servants horribly, yes, but she also stands up for people when she sees them being treated unfairly (as long as it isn't her who's doing the mistreating), and forgiveness is not something that comes at all easily to Gwenhwyfar. They both do a lot of learning and growing over the course of the book, but the change always feels both organic and possible: there are no miracles here.
Although The Wicked and the Just is set in a very specific place during a very specific time and depicts very specific events, it's much more character-driven than story-driven, and much more Day-in-the-Life than Major Event. The author avoids platitudes or easy answers, and, in a move that might not be popular with some (especially younger) readers, stays true to the characters rather than taking Ye Olde Romance Cures All Ills route.
Good stuff. It definitely won't be to everyone's tastes—it's certainly not the sort of book that ever becomes a blockbuster—but I suspect its fans will be both devoted and vocal.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.