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by Nancy Bilyeau
Orion Books, February 2012
416 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 1409133079

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1538, England is in turmoil. Henry VIII and his chancellor Thomas Cromwell have put down one rising by the Catholics in the north and are considering a second round of seizures of monastic property to both boost a frail exchequer and stamp royal authority on religious reform. A young nun, Joanna Stafford, is plunged into this febrile atmosphere, under the gaze of an absolute monarch of uncertain temper obsessed by the need to produce a legitimate male heir. Against a backdrop of courtiers, churchmen and aristocracy plotting with and against each other, she has to uncover a secret relic which could change the fate of a nation and save her own family.

But Joanna Stafford is no ordinary novice. Her family, once Dukes of Buckingham but now in disgrace, is itself of royal blood and one of the oldest in the land. The Staffords have already incurred Henry's wrath, dying either on the scaffold or at the stake for their refusal to accept the new religion decreed by the state to legitimise the king's desires.

Joanna Stafford, the half-Spanish daughter of a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, Henry's first queen, has inherited all the fire and determination which lead her to defy her strict Dominican order and carry her through imprisonment in the Tower and her increasingly desperate and pressured search.

Nancy Bilyeau, once a writer with ROLLING STONE magazine, and with a passion for Tudor history, scores a triumph with her first novel. This is a thought-provoking story of a young woman's journey to maturity against a background of intense adversity.

The changing face of England, driven by Henry's lust and greed, provides a gripping subplot that is handled with care and balance. While never ignoring the failures, both spiritual and political, of the hierarchy of the Catholic church, the book points up the simple faith and charity of the majority of those the king chose to dispossess and the devastating short-term effect that decision was to have on the ordinary people of his country.

With its carefully drawn cast of totally believable characters, detailed historical accuracy and sharp story-telling, this tale of faith and honour is a compelling look at one of the pivotal periods of English history. Although a sometimes uncomfortable read for anyone with illusions about Tudor morals or motivation, it is above all a thrilling testament to the strength of one woman's conviction to overcome the odds.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, September 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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