Friday, 6 March 2015

Review | The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

by Nancy Bilyeau

My Rating: 

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favourite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

While Joanna is in the Tower, the ruthless Bishop of Winchester forces her to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may possess the ability to end the Reformation.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must decide who she can trust so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story set in Tudor England melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past.

When it comes to crime fiction, historical crime is the sub-genre I enjoy most. Shocking, I know.

I'm a big fan of C. J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series; as much as I do think there are way too many historical fiction books set at/around the Tudor Court (or at least too many that hog the spotlight, leaving no room for other periods of history) it's a brilliantly juicy setting for historical crime. But as much as I enjoy Sansom's books there's still something lacking in them: women. Or rather, women who stick around for more than one book who actively assist Matthew and Jack on their quests and aren't just there for one of them to fall in love with.

Enter The Crown. Female-led historical crime set during the reign of Henry VIII? Yes please!

As much as I can understand why, historical crime with female leads isn't something I come across often. They certainly do exist - Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin; Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters; The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley - but it's still very much a sub-genre predominated by male protagonists, so I'm sure you can imagine just how excited I was to start reading The Crown.

Joanna Stafford, the product of a Spanish mother and an English father, is our heroine, and what makes her all the more exciting is that she's a Novice at Dartford Priory. A nun in training! Give me a story with a crime-solving nun and I'm sold.

So often in fiction set in this period of history we are met with Protestant protagonists. This is no bad thing, but just as there have always been bad Catholics there have always been bad Protestants, too. One of the things I loved most about this novel was Bilyeau's honesty concerning the Catholic themes; there were several beliefs of Joanna's, or certain opinions she had because of her beliefs, that I disagreed with, but she was no less of an engaging character, she wasn't cruel, and her beliefs only made the story all the more authentic to me.

I also loved the atmosphere of the novel. I was christened Catholic when I was a teeny tiny baby, and my Mum and I often went to church when I was little. While I haven't been to church in years now, and my own beliefs lead more towards the agnostic than anything else, I've always found churches places of great comfort. I love the smell of them, and I always feel safe and at peace when I'm in them. Joanna's love for her priory and the way Bilyeau described it reawakened those feelings of contentment in me.

There were two reasons I gave this novel four stars rather than five. Firstly, it took a while for the story to get going. The novel opens with Joanna travelling to her cousin's execution and subsequently getting imprisoned in the Tower of London, and yet the time Joanna spent in the Tower was the dullest part of the novel for me. It was only when she returned to Dartford that the story really began to take off.

Secondly, I guessed the culprit about two thirds of the way through. I don't think that was entirely Bilyeau's fault - for those first two thirds I had no idea how the novel was going to end - but I like the outcomes of the crime fiction I read to surprise me, and this didn't knock me off my feet completely.

Even so, it was a great start to a historical crime series, and I look forward to reading The Chalice!

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