10900793Published 2012, Touchstone, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., ISBN:  978-1-4516-2686-5

The Crown is Nancy Bilyeau’s debut historical fiction novel.  The Crown is the story of Dominican Nun, Joanna Stafford, caught in political maneuverings during the reign of Henry VIII in 1537.

Joanna is the niece of the once privileged, but now disgraced and executed Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.  By association, she is tainted traitor.

She loves her religious life, although she has not yet taken vows, and the threat of dissolution of Dartford Prior, the only Dominican order in England, weighs heavily on her mind.   Joanna’s life in service to her beliefs is jeopardized by Cromwell’s advice and the whims of Henry.  Where will she go?  How will she survive?  Questions to which there are no obvious answers.

The Duke of Buckingham’s illegitimate daughter, Margaret, was Joanna’s sole friend during her childhood.  Now she hears news Margaret and her husband, John, are to be executed as rebels.   John is to be hanged but her beloved cousin burned at Smithfield.  Joanna knows she must defy the rule of enclosure and be with her cousin at the last.

She slips out of the priory and travels to London to offer Margaret the only comforts she possesses:  her presence, prayers and love.  Joanna is not prepared for the sheer madness that grips London, especially during a public burning.  She narrowly escapes an assault aided by a Constable, Geoffrey Scovill,   As Margaret is lead to the stake, a sight shocks Joanna to her core.  Her father is running towards Margaret with a bag of gunpowder to end her trial by fire.

Joanna and Geoffrey are arrested, along with Joanna’s father, and taken to the Tower of London.  Her first inquisitor is the Duke of Norfolk, married to her older cousin, Elizabeth.  A wretched marital union.  He accuses Joanna of having ulterior motives for attending Margaret’s execution, exhibiting a pendant given to her by Margaret and Margaret’s last letter to her as evidence of Joanna’s intent to foment fresh rebellion against the King.

Her previous service to the dying Katharine of Aragon in place of her Spanish mother is questioned.  Joanna, remembering that night, determines she will not betray the trust of a dying woman.  Her new tormentor, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, takes to her to the torture chamber.  At the sight of her father, her defiance disintegrates.

Gardiner is convinced Dartford Prior was founded to conceal a powerful relic:  the fabled Athelston Crown.  Gardiner wrenches a confession from Joanna that Katherine of Aragon mentioned the Athelston crown in her dying words.

The Athelston Crown is legendary:

The bishop’s face went white.  “Yes.  And there is prophecy:  A prophecy of great reward but not without great risk.  It is both blessing and curse.  It has a power, Sister Joanna, that has never been unleashed, for if it were, it would change the lives of every man, woman, and child living in England – and beyond.”

Against her conscience, Joanna agrees to return to Dartford Priory to search for the Athelston Crown.  To ensure her compliance, her father is held in the Tower of London.  Accompanied by 2 Dominican Friars, whose motives she does not understand or know, thus begins Joanna’s secret quest.

A murder at the Prior brings Geoffrey Scoville back into her life.  Joanna’s mission is fraught with danger, journeys into the world, decoding and deciphering obscure clues.  She does not know who is trustworthy or bent on objectives contrary to hers.  And, exactly what does Gardiner intend to do with the crown, should it be found?

Nancy has masterfully written The Crown so the reader knows no more than Joanna at any given point.  Where, how or if the Athelston Crown will be located and the consequences of such a discovery are just as much a mystery to the reader as the reader is pulled along with Joanna.

The Crown is written employing all five senses, an attribute many novels lack.  This serves to provide added depth to the prose. Nancy plays for high stakes in The Crown, but also knows when to let the reader have a little bit of a breather.  Characters do not always enjoy the security of the roles they play.   A little dash of romantic inclination adds the question of whether Joanna will remain in the religious life or maybe…..

Nancy leaves the reader satisfied, but open to the concept there may be more to come in Joanna’s life.

An outstanding debut historical fiction novel, The Crown is worthy of a glowing:

MY RATING:  5/5 Stars

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