Joanna Stafford is caught up in this Tudor novel of the time of King Henry VIII, in religious upheaval, conflicting beliefs, myths and superstition, political mayhem, murder and espionage, love and betrayal. She is caught up in situations that often make her question and wonder if there was anyone around her left that she could trust. The author does a good job of combining the religious beliefs with the superstitious elements of that time period.
Joanna, a young beauty, is also an ex-nun. She is trying to adjust to her new life after the King orders all monasteries and convents closed:
“After King Henry VIII ordered the surrender of our home, Dartford Priory, we had become, to the world, simply Edmund Sommerville and Joanna Stafford. I’d struggled to prevent that. In the last months of Dartford Prior’s existence, under duress, I’d searched the convent for the Athelstan crown, an object that Bishop Stephen Gardiner swore to me would stop the destruction. But the search took unexpected – and deadly – turns, and when it was over, our priory, 180 years old, closed its doors forever as did the other monasteries. So ended the chaste splendors and humble glories of the only house for Dominican sisters in England. We had no choice but to relinquish our habits and veils and depart.”
Joanna Stafford, the main character in the novel, was not a true historical figure, but rather the novelist’s creation. She is gutsy, independent, and creative (for a woman to begin a tapestry business in Tudor England would have been unheard of, unless their business was ‘behind the scenes’ with a male figure to run it.) However, her fickleness with love interests greatly frustrated me although I suppose I could give her the benefit of the doubt and attribute her confusion with whom she REALLY loves or wants to marry, with the sudden adjustment to life outside a convent. There were some scenes in the book, that quite simply, I could have done without, but nothing too graphic (I read for pleasure and to make sense of the world around me, so don’t appreciate an abundance of scenes that promote stomach-churning!)
Joanna also has ‘custody” of her cousin (Margaret)’s child, Arthur, but hardly ever seems to see him. However with all of her adventures it is unrealistic to think that she possibly could care for a five year old, when she is escaping imprisonment, murders and visiting seers in dark and dangerous situations.
The parts of this novel that worked great for me was the writing about the Tudor time period and the upheaval that so many faced with religious persecution and suspicion and a king that did not hesitate to punish, sometimes with imprisonment, but more often with a death sentence, those he looked upon as a threat to his rule or religious beliefs.
The parts that weren’t so great (for me), were some of the discrepancies in character motivations, especially near the end of the novel, when Joanna’s character becomes a little too ‘ex-nun’ for me! (I mean, really….that she did not hesitate to use a knife or fight with men and get the best of them?) For a woman who is reluctant to dress herself in anything but the most drab of clothing (as befits a nun) but who seems so unhesitatingly to be able to master wielding (and using) a weapon seems a bit too much of a contrast to me!
There were great situations and (true) historical characters that I enjoyed about in reading this novel; one of them for instance, the scene when Joanna meets Anne of Cleves.
“Her majesty would like to see your needlework,” the earl informed me. “That is her favorite occupation, sewing.”
I watched as the future queen inspected my embroidery. As she turned my work this way an that, a delighted smile lit up her face. I suddenly felt apprehensive to think of her being handed over to Henry VIII.”
The reader’s interest is kept with trying to discover what choices Joanna will make. Will she cave to the pressure and pursue the prophecies that she is told she has a part in? Will she help to plot against the king, or will she choose to defend him?
“I rushed to him, saying, I beg you to listen to me. Haven’t we been taught, “Arm yourself with prayer, rather than a sword; wear humility, rather than fine clothes’?”
He turned to me – I saw that his eyes like Brother Oswald’s glittered like hard gems. “We have been humble too long, Sister. See what has become of us as a result. I must go.”
“But Brother Edmund, they’ll kill you – all of you,” I said. “None of you have seen what the king’s men are capable of. Not as I have.”
“And if I should die in this attempt – an attempt to prevent an act of hate and blasphemy – then my life at last has been infused with meaning, Sister Joanna,” he said passionately. “You of all people know what it cost me to take the Oath of Supremacy to King Henry five years ago. I denied the Holy Father. I haven’t known grace since, not the true grace of God. I was weak; I feared torture and death; I swore the oath. I cannot live with that any longer.”
I had not read Bilyeau’s first novel “The Crown” but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to my reading and understanding the plot. This book is one that has a lot of suspense and intrigue, and although at times I had to suspend belief, I had to keep reading, and I did enjoy it.
There is a destiny one creates. And there is a destiny ordained.
I walked slowly, toward the middle of the circle of men. Everyone stopped talking and waited for me to speak.
“I will go with you to Canterbury,” I said.”
Thanks to the publisher and the First Reads program at Goodreads for the chance to review this novel!