The Crown

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).

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Simon & Schuster 2012

The Right Hand Shore

The land at the Mason Retreat has stories to tell, secrets to keep and its people to hold.  As I sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, looked right and contemplated the acres of peach trees tended by freed slaves earning living wages, I imagine a part of the Earth on the verge of utopia.  The land would speak otherwise.  To preserve the land, its inhabitants must suffer its curses in a truly Southern Gothic way.

Oh the emotions this novel drew from deep within me!  I felt the roots of the peach trees grab hold of my bones and take a stronghold.  Ophelia, the Mason wife, enraged me — for the abandonment of her son and husband for the superficiality of Baltimore high society — all to escape the land.  I assumed the loneliness of Ophelia’s son, and my heart quickened with his sisters’ obsessions to carry on the family tradition of preserve, preserve.

Not to say that there weren’t moments of outright humor — I almost spewed my sweet tea over these pages’ rare laughable moments.  “It’s Johns Hopkins, not John Hopkins.” reports one suitor of Ophelia’s daughter, Mary.  As a graduate of this institution, I have said this exact quote many, many times.  Another laugh, “We are all Catholic.” — the superficial attempt at ecumenicism that we all know no one believes.  Even as the Retreat abandons its orchards and turns to a new crop of inhabitants, the exasperated interviewee retorts “Does she expect me to read that?  Someone named Goffart.  Get it?  Go fart.”  Potty talk reigns, even in the early 1900’s.

The Right Hand Shore is a novel to savor, slowly take in the setting.  Embrace the sinking pace of Southern agrarian life with a tart glass of lemonade on a breezy high porch.  Faulkner, Conroy,…Tilghman.

The Right Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner
Ballentine Books

This commentary is second in line for books tossed at me, because they were thought to take place in Italy.  Yes, Catherine de Medici spent her childhood in Italy, but let there be no mistake:  she is oh so French. 

The interesting part of reading this book is that I had no preconceived notion of Catherine de Medici’s character.  This history minimalist had no idea that history has vilified the former queen of France; Gortner tells a very different story.  As a young bride to Henri II, Catherine was acutely aware of the politics of female survival in a royal court: produce an heir to the throne and protect the bloodline at whatever personal cost.   While members of the court sought to eradicate opposition along religious lines (Catholic or Huguenot), Catherine spent most of her life attempting to enforce an unheard-of level of ecumenism for the 16th century:  we are all French.  As her life progresses from one deliberate chapter to the next, her cryptic visions lead her to Nostradamus, the seer of all time. 

What could have really defeated this novel would have been a complex detailing of the geneology of European monarchs.  Instead, the political connections and implications thereof are embedded in this thriller of a plot.  I wanted to follow this warrior queen from beginning to end.  Booklist wrote, “Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory fans will devour this.”  If so, these are two authors I will be investigating in the near future.