Book Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau (plus comments on The Chalice)
I’m proud to announce that I am now an ebook reviewer for the Historical Novel Society! Since my other reviews on this site are longer and more impassioned (say it ain’t so!), I wrote this one within the HNS guidelines as a kind of “audition” for the role. Following that review are a few comments on the second book in the series.
The Crown is not your average Tudor tale. Sure, all the usual players are there: King Henry VIII, Princess Mary, Thomas Cromwell, even Queen Katherine, but they are on the periphery. This is the story of Joanna Stafford, a noblewoman turned novice at the Dominican priory of Dartford around the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.
Nancy Bilyeau does a masterful job of illustrating a side of Tudor life you don’t often hear much about. What was it like to be Catholic during a time when Henry was growing increasingly antagonistic of the Church? What happened to those whose religious vocations were invalidated thanks to the king’s vendetta? Add in a murder and the search for a precious relic that may or may not save the day, and you’ve got the makings of a great read.
The strongest point of the book for me was the portrayal of daily life, secular, royal and religious. Bilyeau obviously did her research and it shows in the details that make the world come to life. Joanna is an engaging, sympathetic heroine, and those around her, Brothers Edmond and Richard, the Sisters and Geoffrey Scoville are unique, if flawed, characters.The who-done-it of the murder was also well done, and is concluded in a way I never would have guessed.
But it’s not a perfect book. Sometimes Joanna’s reactions seem forced, like we didn’t get enough insight into the way her mind works to understand why she reacted as strongly as she did. I liked the relic idea, but the search for it wasn’t fast paced or life-or-death enough for me to hold my breath about it. (There are some great examples of how to write atmosphere around this plot point, though.)
All in all, this book is highly recommended for fans of Tudor fiction. 4/5 stars.
Since the time I originally wrote this review, I’ve also read the sequel, The Chalice. I liked it slightly more than The Crown, mainly due to the whirlwind of action in the last 1/4 of the book. Most of the same comments apply, although we do finally get explanation for Joanna’s reactions, which was missing from the first book. They really helped me understand and sympathize with Joanna.
Joanna’s relationships with Edmund and Geoffrey, as well as the use of prophecy (although historically accurate) seemed a little melodramatic to me, and contributed to my wariness during the first half of the book. But once that is dispensed with and we finally get to the action that Joanna must perform, the book picks up speed and is hard to put down. Bilyeau also includes a masterful plot twist explaining Henry VIII’s bizarre reaction to Anne of Cleaves. 4.5/5 stars.
Have you read The Crown or The Chalice? If so, did you like either one? If not, are you interested in them? Why or why not?