Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

I was kindly sent a copy of this book by the author Nancy Bilyeau and her publishers after winning a giveaway on English Historical Fiction Authors. It arrived on Thursday, and by Friday evening I had finished it – and now I’m not normally one to coin this phrase but I just couldn’t put it down. Now you guys know me, I’m not normally one to break into historical fiction if I can help it as more often than not it disappoints me – the only exceptions recently have been Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and Ken Follet’s “Pillars of the Earth” and normally I steer very very clear of Tudor fiction (please see Tired Of The Tudors, and you’ll understand why). “The Crown” is Bilyeau’s debut novel, and I have to say, she has done a very good job. Whilst the book isn’t perfect, with some inaccuracies, the fast paced storyline and exceptionally well developed characters kept me hooked from the first page right until the last. And I have to say it was a much needed break from my heavier non fiction that I’ve been reading lately.

First of all, the story is set within Dartford priory in Kent, which was the only house of Dominican Nuns in England., and the main character is Sister Joanna, or Joanna Stafford. Joanna is part of a much bigger family unit, related to the executed Duke of Buckingham and family ties to the Duke of Norfolk…and thus also a family connection to Henry VIII! But why do we encounter Stafford in a priory as a Novice? Quite simply, she had agreed to the dying Queen/Dowager Princess of Wales Katherine of Aragon, that she would take vows due to a huge sense of kinship, and her own huge religious faith. I found Stafford a hugely interesting character from the get go, she came across as hugely intelligent and incredibly loyal to her friends. The story is set amongst the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, an exceptionally turbulent time for England, and after being arrested at the public burning of her cousin, Joanna finds herself embroiled in a quest for a lost Anglo-Saxon artifact. And at the same time, as the story unfolds, we get a sense of how the dissolution affected not only those who were losing their homes but normal people too – there was one part of the book where Joanna was making her way out of the priory (and I’ll try not to give away any spoilers) only to be greeted with hostile looks and words. It was incredibly evocative, and I found myself feeling deeply for the characters.

Bilyeau does a fantastic job with her writing too, considering the massive cast of characters in the book and you find herself creating ties to each character for different reasons, even if they are only briefly mentioned. For instance, I found myself particularly to like John the Stable Boy – he was just awesome (and again I won’t go into too much detail of why because spoilers) and even with the characters who were the bad guys as it were, I found myself finding parts of them that I liked. The characters were not inherently good or evil, they were just human. And I liked that characterisation. It helped that the narrative was detailed, conveying a believable view of Tudor England, and hugely evocative visions of the frightening Tower of London; yet not too detailed to spend pages and pages talking about what someones shoe looked like (trust me, I’ve read books like this – and you get bored very quickly!). The story was fast paced and exciting, and it was that as well as the well rounded characters that meant I just could not put it down. Which has to be a good thing right?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and cannot thank the author and her publishers enough for sending me a copy. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for further work by this promising author. For anyone who likes Tudor fiction then I definitely recommend picking up this book, particularly if you like historical mysteries, and as I described it to my partner last night “It was like a historical Da Vinci Code only written a lot better, much more exciting, and with better characters…and without anything to do with Da Vinci!”. Sums it up nicely I think.

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