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Book Review: The Crown

December 23, 2011

The Crown
Nancy Bilyeau

Touchstone, January 2012
416 pages
(thanks to Touchstone for sending me a review copy!)

The Crown is excellent historical fiction, and a satisfyingly suspenseful mystery, set during the reign of Henry VIII. Joanna Stafford, a young nun, learns that her favorite cousin is about to be burned at the stake. Disobeying the Dominican sisters’ vow of enclosure away from the world, she leaves Dartford Priory to support her cousin.

Joanna and her father are captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, charged with obstructing the King’s justice. That is where Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, finds her and makes his proposition. In exchange for her freedom and her father’s life, Joanna is to return to Dartford Priory. There, she must search for Athelstan’s crown, a relic so powerful it might grant eternal life, or brutal, cursed death. If found, it could end the Reformation.

The Crown is just about everything I could want from well-written and well-researched historical fiction. Sister Joanna’s perspective gives an excellent sense of time and place. Sister Joanna is devout and certain in her faith, and finds purpose in the rituals of the Dominican order. Supporting characters are equally well-drawn. Their ideas and beliefs feel properly anchored in their time period, rather than 21st century imitations mouthing lines and wearing costumes.

As Joanna begins to search the priory in secret, the level of detailed description means I can almost see what she is seeing: the shadowed passages of the priory, half-finished tapestries, leeches in the infirmary. Once things get more suspenseful, there is a distinct whiff of supernatural chill, to go along with the increasingly complex turns of history and conspiracy. Forced to leave her priory more than once as she searches for the missing relic, Sister Joanna has to make choices about her faith and her allegiances, as the conspiracy leaves her questioning who she can trust.

I’ve already seen a few reviews comparing The Crown to The DaVinci Code. Maybe it’s an inevitable comparison, given elements of Church lore, a gory murder tinged with the supernatural, and a main character trying to untangle conspiracy. I hope the comparison boosts Bilyeau’s sales of her debut novel. I also think it’s a lazy comparison that shortchanges The Crown. If Dan Brown’s fans are led to this novel, they’ll read Bilyeau’s nuanced characters, and well crafted descriptions, and see what they’ve been missing.

Read more: an interview with author Nancy Bilyeau from The Big Thrill

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