Thursday, August 20, 2020

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats depicts a woman's necessary charade in 12th-century Wales

Coats’ newest historical novel is a penetrating portrait of women’s resilience and how they work through violent trauma. It’s based around a historical incident likely unfamiliar to its intended young adult audience: the abduction of Nest of Deheubarth by her second cousin Owain, Prince of Powys, during the increasing conflict between Welshmen and the land’s Norman invaders. Nest was married to Gerald of Windsor, leader of the Norman forces.

The tale’s narrator is Elen, a richly complex fictional character. In 1109, Elen has solidified a place for herself in Owain’s warband as his nightly bedmate. Three years earlier, Owain and his men had attacked her family’s steading, killing her two sisters. Seeing no other alternative for survival, Elen healed Owain of his injury and declared—falsely—that Saint Elen would faithfully guard Owain’s life if he always kept her namesake close by. Owain believes in the saint’s protection, but his men are more dubious.

Tension remains high, evoking the political strain, and Owain augments it after his penteulu (right-hand man) is killed by the Normans, and he captures Nest and her three young children in revenge. This angers his father, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, who fears paying the price for his hotheaded son’s act. Elen faces her own battles. The flashbacks to her earlier ordeal are delicately handled, and even now, Elen’s mind vies between the status quo—staying with Owain and remaining alive and cared for—and wanting to take a dagger and stab him. Elen desperately wants a female ally. While Owain’s stepmother, Isabel, proves hostile to the idea, Elen sees how Nest bravely endures her captivity and envisions how to escape her longtime charade.

This gritty tale of feminine strength deserves attention from all medieval history enthusiasts, from YAs through adults.

Spindle and Dagger was published by Candlewick in 2020; I'd reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review based on a publisher-supplied ARC.

Some other notes:

- This novel is classified as YA, and the heroine is seventeen, I believe, but the themes are hardly juvenile. It would work well as a crossover novel, in the vein of Julie Berry's The Book of Dolssa and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  Along these lines, the cover art is attractive, yes, but it's clearly aimed at teen readers. Adult readers of historical novels shouldn't be dissuaded from picking it up by the art or the marketing category.

- I've been fascinating by the story of Nest of Deheubarth ever since reading Eleanor Fairburn's 1966 novel The Golden Hive, a biographical novel about her.  Nest/Nesta has been called the "Helen of Wales" as she was a woman whose beauty supposedly drove men to war, but the reality was likely far different than the romanticized legend. Soon after I'd reviewed The Golden Hive for this blog in 2010, I'd received an email from the author, which was a nice surprise. As I recall, she had been debating finding a publisher to bring her work back into print, but this never happened.  She died in 2015.  I'd still love to see her work made more widely available.  Getting back to the subject at hand, when Spindle and Dagger became available for review, I knew I'd have to read it.

- The author's earlier The Wicked and the Just is also set in medieval Wales, specifically the 13th century. It's on my list to read.

- You can find Spindle and Dagger on Goodreads, but be aware that many readers gave it a low rating because the e-ARC had more than the usual number of typos.


  1. The novel seems interesting. It was a beautiful review.

  2. The book sounds fascinating and its beautiful cover doesn't hurt either.

    1. It was and is definitely worth reading. Maybe the cover art will grow on me :)