Spindle and Dagger

Written by J. Anderson Coats
Review by Sarah Johnson

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.