Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Friday, March 7, 2014
Title: The Crown
Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Joanna Stafford #1
Pages: 448 (paperback)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers for review
Rating: 4.5/5

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.

A debut novel that quickly emerges as both a vibrantly realized story and an intricately researched project, The Crown is an  impressive and far-reaching tale. It's Nancy Bilyeau's fresh take on the English Reformation, and her grasp on everything - from the players to the politics - is absolute and knowledgeable. Though her protagonist is far from the usual, her unusual perspective only adds to the distinctive appeal of Bilyeau's series opener.

Hype has a way of being a double edged sword, but that is far from the case here. For once, it's more than merited. The reasons everyone talks about Nancy Bilyeau's novel are because it's imaginative but realistic, engaging and thrilling, original but recognizable. The era explored is one of the genre's most popular, but with Joanna's unique POV and circumstances, it doesn't feel or read like any other novel that came before. The slight supernatural elements fit within the story's frame nicely, though they don't seem all that necessary. While I could have done without them, I liked the way Bilyeau incorporated the mythology and legends about the crown itself.

The main plot is by far the strongest, though the side plot has its moments to shine. The same judgment can be applied to the characters -- the main ones are compelling and complex people, but the supporting cast can be hit or miss in their presentation. I also enjoyed the historical aspect more than the murder/thriller, but Bilyeau keeps a nice balance between both elements in The Crown. Above all, this is a supernaturalish historical thriller and it more than lives up to that oddly specific label I just made up for it.

The resolution in The Crown is nearly complete. Almost all loose ends are neatly and satisfactorily tidied up by the author by the final chapter. It's a satisfying read, though Bilyeau smartly teases the options left for exploration in the series' next book. Joanna is memorable and likeable, her story is engaging and fun, and Bilyeau more than knows her stuff when it comes to both her chosen era and in effectively writing that story. The Crown is a great find for Tudor buffs who want something they love but haven't read before in a thousand different iterations.

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