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The Crown (Joanna Stafford series) Hardcover – January 10, 2012
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In this debut historical thriller, an aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father’s life and preserve all she holds dear from Cromwell’s ruthless terror.
When novice nun Joanna Stafford learns her rebel cousin is condemned by King Henry VIII to be burned at the stake, she makes the decision to break the sacred rule of enclosure and run away from her Dominican Order in Dartford to stand at her cousin’s side.
Arrested for interfering with king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, Sir Richard Stafford, is sent to the Tower of London. Joanna’s father is brutally tortured by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester who leads the Catholic faction bent on saving England’s monasteries from destruction. In order to save her father, Joanna must submit to Gardiner’s will and become a pawn in the struggle between religious extremes. Gardiner forces Joanna to return to Dartford Priory with a mission: find the long hidden crown worn by Saxon King Athelstan in AD 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain. Gardiner believes the crown itself to possess a mystical power that will halt the Reformation.
Uncovering only dark betrayals and murder at Dartford, Joanna flees with Brother Edmund, a troubled young friar, and with time running out, their hunt for the crown leads them through royal castles, to Stonehenge, and finally to the tomb of the mysterious King Athelstan under Malmesbury Abbey. There Joanna learns the true secret of the crown, a secret tracing all the way back to Golgotha and the Relics of the Passion. Now, as Cromwell’s army of destruction advances, Joanna must finally determine who to trust and how far she is willing to go to protect a way of life that she passionately loves.
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The Crown is told from the unusual viewpoint of a nun, Joanna Stafford, who has court connections, but is trying save both her father and her convent from destruction. Her enemies re powerful, her friends not.
Despite the potential for melodrama, Bilyeau steers clear of cliché and writes beautifully of Joanna's struggles. This is a wonderful book, and although there is a certain amount of religious talk, it is not preaching but a way of understanding the characters.
The author provides a lengthy bibloiography, evidently she did a tremendous amount of research. Well worth, I highly recommend this book.
The characters surrounding Joanna are nuanced and cleverly portrayed and it was fairly easy to keep them all straight, which is usually hard in historical fiction with so many Marys, Elizabeths, and Janes in most novels. Bilyeau's writing is straightforward, but hits on all the emotions. One scene in particular portrays a historical person that I admire in a light I don't necessarily agree with, but it is written with such skill and razor sharp observation that it was impossible for me to criticize it.
Nancy Bilyeau is an exciting voice in historical fiction and I look forward to reading how the rest of Joanna's story plays out. Don't miss this one!
Joanna Stafford, the protagonist, is a Catholic in the early days of the English Reformation so while I read this book knowing that (view spoiler), the story is no less compelling for knowing how it ends. I found Bilyeau's choice to show the Catholic perspective in this time and place a refreshing change from most historical fiction that treats Henry's reforms as a fait accompli - she really gets across that the dissolution of the monasteries and the conversion of the English people wasn't inevitable and resistance was frequent and varied.
I was on tenterhooks throughout, and the ultimate villain turned out to be a surprise, though Stafford meets plenty of antagonists along the way (her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, Stephen Gardiner, the bishop with whom she shares a common cause but disagrees with his methods). Characters are well formed without cliches and by the end of the book Stafford has several options before her, and while I know which one she'll take (full disclosure: I read the sequel "The Chalice" first) any one of these could take her interesting places.
Recommended, will definitely be getting "The Tapestry" when it comes out!