Sister Joanna Stafford, a novice from Dartford Priory, arrives in Smithfield to witness the execution of her cousin, Lady Margaret Bulmer, a convicted traitor who is burned for inciting a religious rebellion in the north against Henry VIII. Joanna has broken the priory’s rules of enclosure to be there, but she flouts the rules for her cousin and closest childhood friend. Joanna and her father, Sir Richard, are arrested and charged with interfering in an execution of a traitor. They are thrown into The Tower where their fates hang on the whim of the all-powerful Duke of Norfolk and his associate, Bishop Stephen Gardiner.
After several weeks languishing in The Tower, Gardiner orders Joanna to return to her priory and seek Athelstan’s crown, a powerful treasure thought to contain the crown of thorns worn by Christ at the crucifixion. The crown allegedly contains incredible powers, for good or ill, depending on the merit of the person who wears it. Gardiner claims the crown will enable him to stop Cromwell in his plan to destroy the monasteries, and it is up to Joanna to obtain it for him. Spirited, quick-witted, and determined, Sister Joanna makes the “deal with the Devil” and vows to find Athelstan’s crown for Gardiner. She does this to save her father from further torture at Gardiner’s hands, but she also shares Gardiner’s vision, to block the suppression of England’s monasteries. Gardiner orders Dartford to allow Joanna to return, and so she does in the company of two friars, both of whom also work for Gardiner. Joanna is ordered to speak to no one of her hunt for the crown, not even the two friars who accompany her. Supposedly, they are all on the same team, but what does Gardiner hold over each of them and what motives will ultimately win out?
During her frantic search, Cromwell’s men push ahead, closing down abbeys across the country. Joanna encounters a number of others during her journey, none of whom she can entirely trust: Norfolk, her ruthless cousin-in-law; rigid Prioress Joan, who has suspicious ties to Cromwell; Brother Edmund, a friar with healing talents who has a shameful secret of his own; Geoffrey Scoville, constable of Rochester who often comes to Joanna’s rescue and harbors a romantic interest in her; Lord Chester, a lecherous noble who threatens to reveal Dartford’s “secrets”; Lady Mary, Henry VIII’s oldest daughter and one of Cromwell’s biggest enemies; and Sister Helen, a mute nun with an urgent secret to share; among many others. An elaborate chess game ensues, with each party racing for the crown for their own reasons.
Concerned that a book with a nun for a heroine will be too bland? This historical thriller will prove you wrong! Bilyeau’s debut novel has Joanna Stafford (a fictional character, niece of the executed third Duke of Buckingham and related, by marriage, to the Duke of Norfolk) as the lead investigator in a tale that effortless combines the story of England’s Reformation with medieval legend, political greed, spirituality, loyalty, and bravery. Joanna’s backstory, as the daughter of one of Katherine of Aragon’s Spanish ladies, adds as much to the story as the legend of Athelstan’s crown. Joanna fights for her father, for her faith, and for herself – the final scene where she declares that she is “no one’s creature” is triumphant and moving. I see many reviewers complained about the frequent flashbacks, which do slow things down a bit at the beginning, but are necessary for the full story to unfold.
This book is beautifully written, meticulously researched, and vividly drawn – a true nail biter – and a story so intricately woven that it’s a real joy to read. I will be continuing Sister Joanna’s story in Bilyeau’s follow-up, “The Chalice”, and I highly suggest you do the same!
Amazon link for the book is here.