Publishers: Simon & Schuster (2012)
This book delves into the adventures of Dominican nun, Joanna Stafford. Set during the Protestant Reformation, this intriguing story follows Joanna as she seeks the mysterious Athelstan Crown – a relic that could be the key or the downfall of the Catholic Church. This book takes the reader on a compelling journey into the turbulent period of Henry VIII’s reign and the Protestant Reformation.
Joanna sneaks out of her convent and makes an arduous trip to London to see her cousin Margaret Bulmer, who is set to be burned at the stake for treason. While Joanna can’t save her, she feels it her duty to be present with her cousin during her dying moments. During the execution, she encounters the help of a king’s constable, Geoffrey Scovill. A violent scene erupts and afterward, Joanna is taken captive in the Tower of London. After a long imprisonment, she is released only under the condition that she return to her religious house and aid the powerful and sinister Bishop Gardiner in locating this sacred relic that holds mysterious and dangerous powers. In exchange, Gardiner promises to release her father. Joanna reluctantly agrees to the terms and embarks on this difficult journey.
The book reads a bit like “The DaVinci Code” in its “mysterious secrets and dark plots” vein, but it is a much, much better book than this famous predecessor. Like many books written in this genre, we have the typically willful and strong female protagonist who, against all odds, manages to do the seemingly impossible and solve the crime/foil the bad guys. Joanna is given an enormous amount of leeway in terms of what she gets away with in the book as a novice but in spite of this liberty, I really enjoyed the story. Although I’ve encountered Joanna’s character repeatedly in other historical fiction novels, i.e., “the strong, willful woman”, Bilyeau was able to make the story interesting and Joanna’s character one that I wanted to invest in for the next 400 hundred pages.
This book is, thankfully, not cheesy, and doesn’t fall into the trap that so many historical novels do: they make a caricature of the period. The supporting characters, like Brother Richard and Brother Edmund all have interesting facets to their personas and add in telling an exciting tale of murder and political intrigue. The nuns of Joanna’s order were not one-dimensional typical stock characters and added to the story’s entertainment. A lot of the action in the book takes place at the convent and it was far from boring; some of the most dramatic moments of the book occur there and I didn’t feel the need to have the story move much beyond the convent’s walls to make it captivating.
While the book is not as fast paced as some historical murder mysteries, it definitely has some very surprising twists and turns, and great characters. If you enjoy historical fiction and “whodunits”, this is a book that you should definitely add to your summer reading list.
See also The Last Nun
See also “The Rack Seldom Stood Idle…”