The Crown. Nancy Bilyeau. Touchstone. September 2012. 448 pages. ISBN #: 9781451626865.
Henry VIII and his supporters are busy eliminating opponents, those who opposed his annulment to the first Queen and those who maintain the "old ways" of the Catholic Church, including priests, monks, friars, professed nuns, and novices. Henry wants his Protestant Church (that name is used here, though it was really called Church of England by its adherents) to thrive, and the coffers of the monasteries will add to his dwindling wealth. This is the story of those who oppose Henry but out of different motives. For Joanna Stafford, the death of her cousin marks the beginning of a long journey of suffering, confusion, shocks, betrayals, and more; however, it's a journey that will deepen her faith and yet free her from its restrictive boundaries.
The protagonists are the nuns in her Dominican home, Dartford Priory, two Dominican friars, Brother Richard and Brother Edmund, various porters and servants, and Bishop Gardiner. The latter has freed her from the notorious Tower, where she has been imprisoned for attending her cousin's execution and as a member of the rebellious Stafford family. Gardiner holds her father hostage and will free him if she finds the secret crown that once belong to a medieval King, Athelstan. The Crown is said to hold a secret that may be a blessing to some, a curse to others, a mystery supposedly applying to those with pure or impure motives who wish to possess it. Is it the curse or coincidence that all who have possessed it have died very soon after briefly owning it?
This is a thriller containing constant surprises as the mystery of the hunt continues and vile acts of others comes to light. But there are unique qualities to Bilyeau's plot. While some may think this is a proverbial stereotypical plot with like characters, nothing could be farther from the truth. For some want to protect the Church which is gradually being exterminated by King Henry VIII, others want to turn the tides of political power with the inherent sacred power of this crown, and others turn to violence because of events that snap the mind in a frightening, life-threatening instant! Most, however, have mixed motives that only get sorted out as the story progresses!
Who will each character ultimately serve? Joanna Stafford is a feisty woman who exhibits incredible intelligence, a penchant for leadership and confrontation when necessary, but also a vulnerable woman acting outside of the confines of roles allowed for women at that time (outside of the seducers in Henry's court, that is) and knowing she yearns for more - and more as the mystery approaches an unexpected end. After what she has endured, how could she settle for a marriage planned by someone else, with a a shadow of existence under the shameful "Stafford" reputation? She can't and so the future remains an open question, and somehow the reader knows disappointment will not loom in the follow-up to this super story. And what of the other relics that are held and then hidden by the Benedictine monks?
The Crown is outstanding historical fiction, a ripping thriller, in short A GEM!!!!