Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel begins in London in 1537, where the narrator, Joanna Stafford, a novice nun, breaks the sacred rule of enclosure to be at her cousin’s side when the cousin is burned for treason. Along with her father, Sir Richard, Joanna is arrested for interfering with the king’s justice. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, offers to help Joanna’s father if Joanna will agree to return to Dartford Priory to find a relic of great power once worn by Saxon King Athelstan. This crown has been lost for centuries, but Gardiner believes whoever has it in his possession cannot be defeated, and he wants to use the crown himself to save the monasteries of England.
Joanna has no choice but to agree and returns to her priory to accept the punishment and unwelcoming presence of most of the nuns. As Joanna begins to search for the crown, she realizes the two monks who escorted her to the priory have also been sent by Gardiner, and together they continue their task. Betrayal and murder ensue – whom, exactly, can Joanna trust?
I found the view into life in the cloister to be of great interest in this novel. Bilyeau captures the frustration of those who are told, suddenly and without choice, to change their faith. The rituals and relics which had been so meaningful are taken away with little to fill the gap, especially for those who cannot read (most of the populace). The monks and nuns are uprooted from their homes, often with no compensation. The spunky character of Joanna Stafford may not seem very nun-like, but she is determined to do all she can to save her treasured way of life.