Updated: Jun 18
(4/5⭐️) “I will make my own chaos. I will bring down this whole miserable castle works around Clare’s wretched Norman ears, and I will leave Owain and his lads to come out of it however they can.”
Spindle and Dagger is a thrilling historical novel that follows a young woman who has learned to survive through whatever means necessary. The story begins with Elen in Wales, 1109, three years after a warband raided her home and killed her family. To survive the raid, she saved the warband leader’s life and crafted an elaborate lie, a playact she is forced to live daily. Thus, she finds herself living with the very people who destroyed her life and stole her happiness. When she saved Owain ap Cadwagn’s life and made him believe that he held the protection of Saint Elen—her namesake—as long as he kept her close, he took her at her word. But no one can survive for long on a lie, and Elen’s lie begins unraveling. She may be Owain’s bedmate and protector, but she is not his wife, nor is she welcomed by his family and friends. She lives a poor existence as an outcast, the object of lewd jokes and ridicule. Yet, she has survived, with plenty of food, clothes to wear, and a bed to sleep in. It’s better than being dead, right? When tensions between Wales and England escalate, and circumstances take a disastrous turn, Elen must decide if she will abandon the lie and live life on her own terms, or remain at the mercy of Owain for the rest of her tortured existence.
I really enjoyed this dark tale, despite a few flaws early on. It deals with some deep themes such as sexual assult and death. Elen suffered greatly when the warband raided her home. She watched them kill her sister and destroy everything. She suffered through rape, as was common during those times. These scenes are not shown, but relayed as flashbacks throughout the story, leaving the reader to pity Elen. They are not graphic, which I appreciated. In the end, Elen did what she could in the heat of the moment: she offered to save Owain’s life, the man responsible for everything, in hopes that she might be allowed to live. Some might argue that it was a cowardly move on her part(she was only fourteen at the time).
From the beginning, it is clear that Elen is somewhat of a coward. Yet, as the story progresses, she begins to show strength. That strength grows. We see a rewarding character arc as she transforms herself, as she learns to take her life into her own hands. She learns to have courage in spite of fear—a valuable lesson.
J. Anderson Coats portrayed the Welsh warband life in a way that gave me a glimpse into old times. Her writing and prose was a pleasure to read, and perfect for young adult audiences. Some reviews I came across argued that the book moved slow in places. I did not find that to be the case. I felt that every piece was relevant to Elen’s growth as a character. The plot was masterfully woven with true events, taking advantage of various missing pieces from history. I felt as if this story really did happen during the 1100s, based on the information available to us today. Overall, I believe Coats did a great job staying true to events.
My only critique was that I felt the beginning of the book (the first couple of chapters) fell short. Because the story begins three years after the catastrophic event that shaped Elen’s future, we are left to piece together what happened. This made things confusing at first and could potentially turn some readers away. I believe that having utilized a short prologue, one that wasn’t too graphic, could have better set the stage. Moreover, I felt that the beginning doesn’t do enough to hook a reader. There was a lot of “telling” in the first few chapters. One event in particular, when we witness the death of Llywelyn penteulu, left me quite dissatisfied. The little “battle” skirmish on the road is relayed in what felt like a emotionless manner. Given that it was so early on in the book, and I was still trying to find my bearings, I think the author could have added some bits to make the event feel more “real.” An arrow whizzing past Elen’s ear, or someone falling dead at her feet, or someone coming at her only to be struck down. Something that involved her more in the scene. I would have liked to have seen some emotions from Elen while this was happening. Because of this, the scene felt lazily done. Fortunately, this wasn’t enough for me to put the book down, and after getting past this part, I found myself entirely engrossed. I have subtracted 1 star for these flaws.
The latter half of the book entirely engrossed me. Once I saw Elen begin to plot, to take matters into her own hands, I found myself eagerly hoping she would make the correct decision. There were a few fumbles on her part, as is normal when it comes to personal growth. Her ultimate decision at the end was very fulfilling. I loved the way the story ended; it put a smile on my face and left me feeling good.
My favorite relationship between the characters was Elen and Nest. I felt that the growth between them was realistic. I felt bad for Nest from the beginning, and I admired the way Elen stepped up to help Nest, despite the things she’d gone through in her past. The way their friendship developed left me fulfilled. Rhys was my other favorite character. I enjoyed the small bit of storyline he enveloped, and watching his personal growth from the beginning to end.
If you enjoy historical fiction set in an English setting, with bits of true history woven into the plot, I highly recommend this book. I initially picked it up because of the stunning cover, which caught my eye immediately. I’ve always been a fan of historical fiction. This story did not disappoint! It will be available March 10th, so hurry and preorder your copy!
Thank you Netgally, and Candlewick Press for providing me an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review. I was thrilled to read the story and happy that I did.