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Book Review: The Crown

Posted by gck Thursday, December 22, 2011


The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Genre: Historical Fiction / Thriller
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Fans of Philippa Gregory and Dan Brown, people who like action-driven plots and the Tudor England time period.
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
An aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. The year is 1537. . .

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, takes terrifying steps to force Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may hold the ability to end the Reformation. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory and searches in secret for this long-lost piece of history worn by the Saxon King Athelstan in 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain.

But Dartford Priory has become a dangerous place, and when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with a sensitive young monk, Brother Edmund, to search elsewhere for the legendary crown. From royal castles with tapestry-filled rooms to Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan, Joanna and Brother Edmund must hurry to find the crown if they want to keep Joanna’s father alive. At Malmesbury, secrets of the crown are revealed that bring to light the fates of the Black Prince, Richard the Lionhearted, and Katherine of Aragon’s first husband, Arthur. The crown’s intensity and strength are beyond the earthly realm and it must not fall into the wrong hands.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must now decide who she can trust with the secret of the crown so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past.

My review:
The comparisons others have made to this book being a Philippa Gregory/Dan Brown combination is fairly accurate -- it's a historical fiction thriller. It definitely keeps the reader interested in knowing what happens next, and it's a fun book to read. I liked the fact that the main character was a nun, rather than someone at the royal court.

Personal preference comes into play with my assessment of this book. Thrillers are action-driven, and my preference leans towards character-driven books. The characters here are distinct enough to be interesting, but they don't garner a lot of sympathy or show complex motivations behind their actions. On the other hand, I didn't dislike any of the protagonists. The main character, Joanna, is almost too perfect, as many of the other characters frequently praise her so much for her intelligence, perception, connections, and overall special-ness. It's an interesting thing to have a religiously-focused main character in a book that is not religiously-focused. But maybe this, rather than the standard "character with a love interest," makes Joanna seem more distant and less relatable?

I found the plot to be somewhat uneven. First of all, the whole mission she is sent on is somewhat unbelievable. Maybe it makes sense for Joanna to have to seek the Athelstan crown, but it doesn't make sense that she should be piecing together so much of the history behind it. If the information was needed in order to find it, Gardiner should have just given it to her to begin with. Of course, that would make the story significantly less interesting. Also, some mysteries that were drawn out for a long period of time had relatively low key endings, but other things are revealed pretty suddenly at the end that almost seem to have come out of nowhere.

These aren't really things that are glaringly problematic for a casual read, since the plot is compelling enough to string you along without the need for external analysis. But it does keep this good book from being a great one.


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