Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice, secretly leaves her priory to attend the execution of her cousin, who’s been condemned to death by Henry VIII for crimes against the crown. She wants to offer her support at the hour of her cousin’s death. Both Joanna and her father appear at the execution, but are captured and imprisoned for interfering with the king’s justice. The Bishop of Winchester offers Joanna a choice; if she will find an ancient crown (rumored to have mysterious powers) that is hidden at her priory, the Bishop will release her father, and spare her priory from being closed down by the King's religious reforms. By agreeing to his terms, Joanna is propelled into a mystery that will have far reaching implications for herself, her fellow nuns, and all of England.
Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent debut novel, The Crown, is set against the political & religious intrigues of 16th century England, during the period of The Reformation. Bilyeau clearly knows her subject matter; the novel feels very real; you truly experience this world, and are drawn deeply into the story. Joanna, as well as the supporting characters, are well rounded and interesting. The book has a nice sense of the struggle between the spiritual & the worldly, as Joanna (and other characters) grapple with questions about their faith & their devotion to their principles. While Joanna searches for the relic, she finds that there may be a deeper mystery to solve, and uncovers more questions than answers. Brother Edmund, a young monk who returns to the priory with Joanna, becomes her ally in her quest, but does he have secrets of his own? As the story continues, there's intrigue, deception, mysterious deaths, and surprising revelations.
The novel deftly mixes genres: there are aspects of thrillers, mysteries, and historical fiction; there’s even a hint of romance. Even though the story is set in the past, the characters, and their feelings & emotions are very relatable; you truly become invested in these people, and what happens to them. By the end of the book you’re quickly turning pages to see what fate awaits Sister Joanna, and to learn the true secret of the crown. In a genre that can often be overcrowded by inferior & hastily assembled works, Bilyeau has crafted an intelligent, exciting and enjoyable book. The Crown is now available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions. The second novel in the series, The Chalice, will be published in early March. I'm anxiously waiting to see what further adventures are in store for Joanna Stafford.
Full disclosure: I worked with Nancy during her tenure at Good Housekeeping magazine, and I’m thrilled for her success. You definitely should seek out this wonderful novel. Here's a link to her official website, which has more info about Nancy and her work: http://www.nancybilyeau.com/