Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: “The Crown” by Nancy Bilyeau

“The Crown” by Nancy Bilyeau (reviewed by James Kobielus)

England’s official break from Roman Catholicism in the early 16th century was a period of great convulsion. Henry VIII dismantled, confiscated, and nationalized the entire religious infrastructure of his nation. It was a breathtakingly selfish coup d’eglise, motivated in part by the king’s desire to divorce his queen in hopes of remarrying and siring a male heir, but also by his own lust for absolute power unchallenged by adversaries in the Church of Rome. Most, but not all, of the English aristocracy followed the king’s lead and participated with glee in stripping monasteries, friaries, priories, and other religious communities of their considerable wealth. 

Nancy Bilyeau captures this dramatic period in brilliant colors in her 2012 novel, the Simon and Schuster title “The Crown.” Bilyeau tells the story of an aristocratic Dominican novice who is blackmailed into helping a shady bishop find an ancient relic that is rumored to be hidden in her endangered community and is believed to have the power to reverse the course of the Reformation. While her father languishes in the Tower of London, the cloistered Sister Joanna must cunningly search for the fabled crown of ancient King Athelstan without arousing suspicion.

Bilyeau uses exceptional storytelling craft in building suspense in this, her first novel. She tells the story in the first person through Sister Joanna Stafford, an intelligent, determined young woman who is serious in her commitment to the religious life but also attuned to the political crosswinds of her time. Bilyeau has clearly done deep historical research, and, though she has characters speak in more of a modern-feeling than Chaucerian English, they voice sentiments that feel authentic to the Age of Tudor. The characterizations are vivid, especially the nuns of Dartford Priory, depicted as strong, independent women managing their own self-sufficient community without need for men—a feminist undercurrent that pervades the story.

Rest assured that none of it feels antiquarian, polemic, or pedantic—it’s simply a well-written story that envelopes you like a good motion picture, boding well for Bilyeau's “The Chalice,” due to be published next month ( Clearly, she is a promising fresh talent in historical fiction.