I read this book because I was sent the third book in the series in audiobook format to review. I was not sure if I needed to read the first two books in the series to understand the third, but decided to borrow this first book anyway when I found it on my local library's shelves.
The Crown takes place in Tudor England beginning in 1537, just before Henry VIII's son Edward is born. However, it's very different from other historical fiction set in this period, much of which (by Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory in particular) features real historical figures as the main characters. One problem with such books is that it's hard to have your protagonists do anything that would be considered "out of character" for that historical person.
Instead, this book (and series) focuses on an invented character, Joanna Stafford, a member of the (real) disgraced noble Stafford family (although her parents are also fictional). Joanna is a 26-year-old novice in a Dominican convent (Dartford Priory, a real place), and many of the minor characters in the book are more important historical figures, such as Bishop Stephen Gardiner.
This provides author Nancy Bilyeau with some freedom with her main characters (which also include a local constable, Geoffrey, and a Dominicn friar named Edmund). While I don't think a Dominican novice would have had quite as much freedom to act and speak her mind as Joanna apparently does, especially in THAT era, I do think nuns have more spunk that the average person might think (speaking of my experience with my own aunt, a nun). Thus, her actions and behaviors were somewhat believable. I grew to really like and care about the character Joanna.
The plot has been described by others as a bit of a cross between Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and Philippa Gregory's Tudor-era books, in that there's a mystery for Joanna to solve, as well as some romance. She is supposed to find the apparently-magical crown of Æthelstan, a real tenth-century English/Anglo-Saxon king, although the crown of the title is the author's invention. As with all good historical fiction, this has prompted me to learn more about this period of history. Bilyeau helps with the inclusion of a two-and-a-half page bibliography at the end of the book.
For me, though, the strength of the book is its highlighting of the effects of the English Reformation, particularly on the Catholic convents and monasteries of that era, and what life was like for Catholics at that time. Being Catholic myself, I get rather tired of most Tudor-era fiction that paints Catholics as fanatics at best and traitors at worst. Instead, Henry VIII is definitely the bad guy in this book, and not just because of the way he treats his many wives.
A well-developed female protagonist and the different, religion-oriented emphasis on the Tudor era will keep me reading (or listening to) this well-researched series.
© Amanda Pape - 2015