The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau: Review

The Crown

Synopsis from Goodreads: An aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. The year is 1537. . . Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred 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.
The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, takes terrifying steps to force Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may hold the ability to end the Reformation. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory and searches in secret for this long-lost piece of history worn by the Saxon King Athelstan in 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain.
But Dartford Priory has become a dangerous place, and when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with a sensitive young monk, Brother Edmund, to search elsewhere for the legendary crown. From royal castles with tapestry-filled rooms to Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan, Joanna and Brother Edmund must hurry to find the crown if they want to keep Joanna’s father alive. At Malmesbury, secrets of the crown are revealed that bring to light the fates of the Black Prince, Richard the Lionhearted, and Katherine of Aragon’s first husband, Arthur. The crown’s intensity and strength are beyond the earthly realm and it must not fall into the wrong hands.
With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must now decide who she can trust with the secret of the crown so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story 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.

Source: Purchase

My Rating: 3½/5 stars

My Review: BAH! To say that I have struggled with this book and review doesn’t even get me into the ball park. My mom recommended this book to me and rarely, especially where
historical fiction is concerned, is my mom wrong about a book. But I have to admit, in this instance mom led me a just a teeny tiny bit astray. Sorry, Mom 🙂

If I break The Crown into thirds, I really did enjoy the first and the final third of the book. The middle third that caused me all the difficulty. The book opens with Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun having broken her vows so that she may be present when her oldest and dearest childhood friend is being burned at the stake for defying King Henry VIII. Little does Joanna know her little show of loyalty will actually land her in the Tower and at the mercy of one of England’s most heinous and power-hungry clergymen. In order to secure
her release from the Tower and insure the safety of her still-imprisoned father, Joanna agrees to return to her priory in order to re-take her place among the good sisters and find a legendary crown that will help bring the end of Henry VIII’s and his henchman Cromwell’s suppression of England’s religious houses.

In the middle third of the book Joanna is doing her best to fulfill her mission and searches throughout the priory for the elusive crown. As she searches, Joanna is also brought into a variety of other circumstances and situations that threaten to derail her mission at every turn. While the plot certainly advances in this section of the book, it does so at a painfully slow pace. Who knew fact-gathering and sleuthing could be so damn dull?? Had I not called my mother to complain about this, I would have never gotten to the end of the
novel. My mother assured me that I needed to keep reading, get through the middle
section, and then enjoy the conclusion of the story. Thanks, Mom, that helped!

In my mom’s defense, it actually was good advice and the conclusion of The Crown was really quite good. Like the first third of the book, the last third really picks up the pace and moves like it means it. Everything in which Joanna has been involved, up to this point, comes to a head and her sleuthing and fact-finding pays off. Not only does Joanna solve one mystery, she solves two, is reunited with her father, and discovers her life as a Dominican nun may not be all there is for her in the world. The conclusion is actually quite satisfying and leaves the reader with the impression that, while this portion
of Joanna’s life is indeed over, her story is far from being complete.

Joanna, as a character, is one of The Crown’s greatest strengths. Joanna is both a woman of her time and a woman far ahead of her time. As for being a product of her time, Joanna is a devout Catholic in a time when religion dominated all aspects of life. Furthermore, Joanna is a faithful and loyal individual who cares deeply for those closest to her, her fellow sisters, her family, and her Church. As for being a woman ahead of her time, 1) Joanna is very well-educated thanks to her forward-thinking father, 2) she is outspoken
even when she knows the “rules” of her time and place demand she be seen and not heard, and 3) she is courageous often beyond all sense and reason. Even in the slowest part of the novel, watching Joanna work and deal with all that she  finds is fascinating. While I can’t say I connected with her on a personal or emotional level, I was interested in Joanna and how her story would play out. Also, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about that silly crown.

The Bottom Line: I am glad I read this book. It fed my need and my love of historical fiction, but I can’t see recommending this book to just anyone. This book does take some patience (of which I have very little), but it is worth it in the end. Joanna Stafford is an excellent character, and a few other minor characters were quite intriguing, but these characters just weren’t quite enough to allow me to ignore the slowness of the middle third of the book. If  you have spare time, are extremely patient, or are just OK with taking your time reading a book, then I highly recommend The Crown. The plot is good, the
writing style is fine, and the historical aspects are interesting.

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