The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
Simon & Schuster 2012
All of the elements for a powerful series are set in The Crown: a throat-grabbing plot, high-impact sensory elements and an ending dangling on the edge of a cliff. This historical thriller set during Henry VIII's reign starts at full throttle and does not let up. Conveyed by an unlikely source, a novice to the Dominican Order, tension is built within ascents of tension: Will death come by noose, by fire or by disease? Who will gain the power of the mythical Athelstan crown? Will the convent survive? My anxieties were augmented by the contribution of every sense. Bilyeau's presentation of the Tower of London, for example, was so effective and beyond any historian's description of this prison's cruel abandon. I could smell the lye, feel the cold slime of mildew on my fingertips and see the dim candlelight flickering off the blocks of stone. I could hear the horrified screams of tortured souls as if they were beside me. In a grand finale, the ending left me pining to know, not only what happened to the centerpiece icon, but how the characters rebuilt their lives outside the protection of the convent. For most readers, this well-described and aggressive plot would be enough. What takes this inventive story a step beyond is its medieval management of issues still pertinent in modern times.
The risk of sexual assault was very real in Tudor England, and the consequences were grave. Resist and have your entire safety net of marital prospect, social stature and economic safety stripped away. Submit and risk total ruin by pregnancy or advertised spoilage. The convent is portrayed as a safer, but not completely safe, harbor from the well tolerated licentiousness of men across strata in the day. While rape and incest are recognized as offenses to God and Man, even potential victim advocates are rendered powerless. Bilyeau tugs hard on the impact of sexual assault without rising to a podium. The issue is presented in a manner that gave me pause.
Bilyeau also drives the the notion throughout the novel that, despite the depravity of even a significant part of the Catholic Church, great good is being accomplished. Torturous and murderous political power ascensions frequently take precedence over the Ascension. The Reformation certainly hasn't been the only movement to recognize the faults and fractures of the Church, but righteous indignation cannot deny the truth. Volumes of charity feed the poor, heal the sick and protect the weak. Although there will always be corruption, hope persists. There will always be great charity, there will always be the Church.
The Crown takes the intensity of The DaVinci Code to a new level. I was left not just searching for the shadows of myth, but the imprint of timeless truths. To be continued...in 1538 (or 2013).