Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau

The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau
Published March 2015 by Touchstone
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
After her priory in Dartford is closed—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna Stafford resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.

Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King whom she has twice attempted to overthrow—unbeknownst to him. She fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. And her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.

Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be one of the King’s mistresses. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, na├»ve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and possibly, victim.

Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna must finally choose her fate.

My Thoughts:
This is the third book in a series featuring former Dominican nun Joanna Stafford. You've noticed I don't read a lot of book series, as much due to the fact that I'm terrible at remembering to pick them up as much as for any lack of interest in the series. But when the publisher keeps offering the next book in a series I've enjoyed, I can't pass it up.

We were first introduced to Joanna (and many of the supporting characters in this book) in The Crown  when Henry VIII's and Thomas Cromwell's forces moved across England destroying the Catholic church and again went to battle with her in The Chalice when she was wrapped up in a conspiracy to murder King Henry. Having made numerous enemies, she is happy to have retired to life in the village of Dartford, weaving tapestries and avoiding danger.

It would appear that even when she tries to live a quiet life, others have something different in mind for her. This time she is drawn more deeply than ever into life in Henry Tudor's royal court - it's intrigues, mysteries, and machinations. Because of an early attempt on her life, and because she feels compelled to try to save her cousin, Catherine Howard, from Henry's bed, Joanna becomes embroiled in the politics of the kingdom.

Having just finished watching PBS's excellent (if massively condensed) adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I found myself even more involved in this book than the previous books. Speaking of which, although Bilyeau spends a lot of time trying to bring the reader up to speed here, this really is not a stand alone book and it would have flowed better without the attempt to make it one.

Like the tapestries that play a key role in the book, the novel has numerous story lines woven together. Like the previous novels, Bilyeau doesn't try to tie up all of the threads in a matter of days but stretches the novel over a period of year, which feels more realistic. Things never lag along the way, though, not even when Joanna spends months imprisoned. Joanna isn't a particularly skilled detective; more of than not, she is unable to avoid bad things happening and is forced to resort to her knowledge to extricate herself. Which is a great thing about Joanna - she's a very smart, fiercely independent  woman in a time when that was rare.

Bilyeau does a fine job of working to create three-dimensional characters, even those persons we have come to have such a fixed opinion of over time. It's a moment of softness in Cromwell, that allows Joanna to come to terms with him. A shared love of tapestries with Henry that causes Joanna to momentarily consider him as a person rather than the monster she becomes convinced that he is.

My one real quibble with the book (as with the previous books) is what feels, to me, to be Bilyeau's opinion that the Catholic Church itself was blameless in the events that unfolded in England and throughout Europe when Henry broke from the church and Martin Luther's teachings became wide spread. It's the only time in the books where it feels like Bilyeau is inserting an opinion, rather than telling a story.

Still, would I read a fourth book? Absolutely!

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