REVIEW of The Crown, by Nancy Bilyeau

I didn’t enter any historical fiction reading challenges this year, and consequently, the amount of historical fiction in my TBR pile has significantly declined from last year. The Crown, by Nancy Bilyeau is the first historical novel I’ve read, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t pass it up! It’s a historical whodunit that belongs right up there with Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books and Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels–and if you know my penchant for Peters and Davis, that’s high praise indeed.

Set during the reign of Henry VIII of England, The Crown follows the story of Joanna Stafford, a novice at Dartford Priory. In an era when the monasteries are being dissolved to satisfy the king’s cupidity, it is an unfortunate time to be taking holy orders. When Joanna breaks the rule of enclosure to travel to see the execution of her cousin Margaret, she runs afoul of the authorities and is imprisoned, along with her father, in the Tower of London. The Bishop of Winchester agrees to let her return to Dartford on one condition: she must search for and find the ancient crown of Athelstan which is rumored to be hidden there. Her father will stay a prisoner to ensure that she accomplishes her mission.

Bilyeau paints a rich world of religious life in Tudor England and surrounds Joanna with memorable characters–a chivalrous constable, a tormented friar, a hard-nosed prioress, an ambitious prelate. The past life of the protagonist unfolds tantalizingly throughout the course of the novel, always making you want to know more about her. After a murder takes place in the priory, the story intensifies to the point that the book is impossible to set down. I stayed up far too late finishing this book, and the ending did not disappoint! All in all, The Crown is a superb debut novel, and I look forward to reading whatever else Nancy Bilyeau publishes in the future.

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