Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau — 416 pgs

Joanna Stafford is a young novice from a once prosperous family who has just made a hasty escape from Dartford Priory. Upon discovering that her cousin is to be executed as a traitor to King Henry VIII, Joanna leaves the protection of the abbey that she loves in order to show her support for her cousin on the day of her death. But when events don’t go as planned, Joanna finds herself being held in the Tower of London for four long months, and soon the manipulative schemes of bishop Stephen Gardiner will change her life. Returning to the sisters that she left behind with a secret mission that may save the abbey from King Henry’s ministers, Joanna is up against men who long to close these religious houses for their own nefarious purposes. Sent back to Dartford Priory along with her are two Dominican friars whose directives and purposes are unclear to Joanna. But what is clear is this: Bishop Gardiner will stop at nothing in having Joanna search for a holy relic that may change the face of Christendom. Now Joanna must deceive not only the other sisters whom she has grown so close to, but also the new Prioress. When Joanna begins to discover the magnitude of the secrets being kept at Dartford Priory, it may be enough to destroy not only her calling, but to endanger her life as well. In this historical mystery, the fate of Dartford Priory, and the lives in it become hinged on the decisions made by one very unusual and brave novice, Sister Joanna Stafford.

With all the Tudormania that goes on in the realm of historical fiction, both on screen and in print, this book was refreshingly different because it sought to tell the story of a few unheard voices that never got the chance to take center stage in all of Henry’s dramas. I actually didn’t know what to expect from this book, for on the one hand, it was historical fiction, but on the other, there were elements of suspense and mystery surrounding an unearthed relic that had the power to change dynasties. I get the feeling that this book is ripe for a series to be founded upon it, but I liked the fact that even if I choose not to read any further, the story was completely encapsulated in this first book.

Joanna was a spunky heroine in a time where spunk could get you killed. She’s fairly headstrong and inventive, but she goes about doing things in a very quiet way and sometimes it took me awhile to figure out just what she was hoping to accomplish with the things she did. This was wonderful, because I found her to be completely unpredictable, and I think a lot of her cohorts felt this way as well. She was clever and spirited, but it never seemed that her calling interfered with her individuality. What I liked most about Joanna were the same things that made her unique among the other sisters. Her passionate zeal for justice and her ability to follow through no matter the cost to herself made her an excellent character to read about and cheer for, despite all the messiness of her situation.

With the introduction of the relic that’s hidden in priory, I worried that the book would take on shades of The Da Vinci Code and be less than satisfying to me, but Bilyeau manages to stand firmly in her historical time frame and imbued the plot with various period references and details that made this a solid and tightly plotted historical novel with more than a dash of mystery. The mystery was essential to the story and carried with it many different elements of significance, some religious, some political and some personal. Through the manipulation of Joanna, Bilyeau carries her audience into the very heart of the uncertainty that was the hallmark of this time. Treason and execution, persecution and perseverance, sovereignty to king or God; all of these issues come rapidly upon each other in a twisting puzzle of a read that keeps its readers guessing.

Though there were some slight romantic ripples through the plot, romance wasn’t really on offer in this book, and I think Bilyeau made the right decision in keeping those aspects of storytelling tightly reigned in. By doing so, Joanna’s spiritual crisis felt more authentic and pure, and though there was tension in that direction towards the end of the book, most of the plot involved intrigue and complicity, not the tender stirrings of Joanna’s heart towards the men of the novel. I also enjoyed that life in the priory was examined so closely, and even the smallest elements were spiced with great attention to detail. As the story weaves its spell around its readers, one becomes fully surrounded by the intrigue and danger competing with the quiet and ordinary life among the nuns.

I greatly enjoyed this historical drama and felt that as a lover of historical fiction, this was just the tonic I had been looking for. I enjoyed not only the winning and amiable character of Joanna, but the fevered and robust plot as well. The fact that this book made me ponder the bigger truths was another welcome touch. I think lovers of historical fiction and intrigue would be solidly entertained by this inventive debut novel. A hearty and satisfying read.

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Great news! The publishers of The Crown have offered one copy to give away to my readers. If you’re interested in winning it, please fill out the form below. The winner will be chosen with the help of random.org on Wednesday March 21st. This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only.



This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

23 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I just read another review of this yesterday too and it was also positive (although it didn't say "fevered and robust") :--) Sounds like a good read!

Jenny said...

I don't read much historical fiction anymore, but I'll keep this one in mind because I like that it has suspense and mystery too!

(The cover makes me think of christian non-fiction though!)

bermudaonion said...

My sister loved this one too!

Mary (Bookfan) said...

This sounds great! I love a fast paced historical history novel. Loved your review :)

Brooke said...

Yay for keeping the romance reigned in! Glad you liked this one because I've been giving it the serious eye in my local bookstore. Of course, I'm on that book buying ban for another couple of months, but we'll see!!

Harvee said...

Sounds like a book I'd enjoy - historical novel with intrigue...

Audra said...

Great review -- I agree with everything you've said. I so loved that Joanna's spiritual crisis was lifted up -- and as one very allergic to inspiration literature, I was pleased it didn't smack of that. It felt like any other crisis of conscience -- real and defined -- and I just loved Bilyeau's take on this era.

Suko said...

This historical novel sounds exquisite! Thanks for hosting this giveaway; I'll post it in my blog's sidebar.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I agree that the author made the right choice in keeping the romance away. Great review!

Kailana said...

I have been seeing this around and it sounds really good. I am hoping to read it at some point!

nomadreader said...

I've seen this reviewed by numerous people with similar interest, so I'm eager to read it. I'm glad you loved it too! It sounds like a can't miss read!

Ti said...

You made this one sound really good. So good, that I entered the giveaway!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

I do love your reviews and this one just had an extra spark....I guess that happens with good books!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Historical fiction of this nature scares the heck out of me, but if you add mystery to it, then my eyes light up. You have managed to pique my interest!

Marg said...

I am reading this at the moment and enjoying it, more than I expected to given that I thought I was all Tudored out. I think it helps that there is mention of Henry and his wives, but they aren't centre stage.

Jenners said...

This isn't my kind of book but I'm glad you liked it.

Lisa said...

So glad that romance didn't get pushed into this one. I hate when that gets added to books that are better off without it. Thanks for convincing me (yet again!) to pick this one up!

Jenny said...

Sounds fun! I have this very silly prejudice against historical fiction even though I know perfectly well that a large percentage of my favorite books are historical fiction. And this sounds like a really exciting one!

Amy said...

OH I am so so glad to hear that you enjoyed this, I've been looking forward to reading it myself!

Alison's Book Marks said...

I enjoyed The Crown as well. I love how you described Joanna as spunky in a time when such a quality could get you killed. Great review! (you reminded me that I need to put this book in the mail for my mother in law, it's right up her alley!)

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I have been wanting to read an actual review of this book every time I come across the book on Amazon so I'm really glad to hear you liked it. Your review makes it sound like just the book I would thoroughly enjoy!

Darlene said...

Glad to see you liked this one. I'll be starting it soon so I just sort of skimmed. I'll be back after reading it.

Elizabeth said...

Oooh, sounds good. I'm kinda in the mood for more good historical since I had such a fantastic experience with Vanora Bennett. =)

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