Steeping her novel in history, Bilyeau crafts a tale of the perilous times in England. Henry VIII’s Reformation is in full swing, wealthy monasteries plundered for the crown’s treasury, lesser ones awaiting word of their disposition and anticipating closure. A revolution in the north on behalf of the old religion has incurred the king’s wrath, the rebels severely punished as an example to the rest of the country. Margaret Bulmer—wife of John Bulmer, a leader of the rebellion—is soon to be burned at the stake in London for her participation in the revolt, an event drawing excited crowds to view the excruciating death by fire.
As the unruly crowds gather, among them is Dominican novitiate Joanna Stafford, granddaughter of the disgraced Duke of Buckingham and daughter of Sir Richard Stafford. Margaret is Joanna’s cousin; the young nun has left Dartford Priory without permission to bid farewell to her close childhood companion. But things go amiss at the burning, and Joanna finds herself in the Tower of London, where she is questioned by the fearsome Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Through the intervention of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, Joanna is allowed to leave the tower, but not before her own long days of imprisonment, during which she witnesses firsthand the effects of the rack, a favored instrument of torture.
Charged with a mission on Gardiner’s behalf, Joanna cannot fail: her father’s life depends upon her success. Gardiner sends his new protégé back to Dartford Priory in search of a precious relic, the Athelstan Crown, both blessing and curse, its fabled history reaching back to Charlemagne in the eighth century, the first sovereign of a truly Christian empire. The relic imbued with the power to save Christendom, Gardiner must take possession of the crown before Henry’s trusted servant, Thomas Cromwell, a man equally anxious to recover it for his king. As Joanna arrives at the priory with the two monks provided by Gardiner, she is met by unwelcoming sisters and a suspicious mother superior. A number of sinister events converge at the priory while Joanna desperately searches for the hidden crown.
Bilyeau mines the history of the era, complete with descriptions of torture and imprisonment in the dreaded tower, the secret passageways of the priory and Joanna’s fear of failing in her quest. Politics, religious upheaval and the agendas of the powerful drive a variety of characters, from the rebellious Joanna to her fellow nuns, a wily mother superior, the monks sent by Gardiner, and the machinations of Gardiner and Cromwell. Whether the relic is a blessing or a curse is left to rumor and the histories of those who have come in contact with it, a powerful motivation for true believers.
Although Joanna Stafford seems more rebellious than is proper for a novitiate, without this character’s willfulness, there would be no continuity, no burning at the stake, tour of the chambers of torture or winding secret passageways in the priory to hide the much sought-after Athelstan Crown. There is little doubt that the pace of the Reformation will continue, the great religious houses dismantled and the communities scattered among their faithful flock. Bilyeau gives us an opportunity in her novel to experience the chaos, fear and uncertain times when God’s figurehead in Rome is put aside for the God-like powers of the king.