When last we encountered Joanna Stafford – former Dominican novice, expert weaver, and cousin to Henry VIII of England – it was at the end of The Chalice, her last daring adventure in the high court of 16th century England, and she had just sold a tapestry to Queen Anne of Cleves as a wedding present for the king. A long two years ago in real time, only a scant two months have passed for Nancy Bilyeau’s fictional heroine of The Tapestry (March 2015), the third in the Joanna Stafford series. No sooner has she escaped the wrath of Henry VIII when our intrepid heroine is once again inextricably pulled back, by virtue of her extraordinary tapestry talents, into the mire of court intrigues and murderous plots. This time, against herself.
The Nancy Drew of 1540, Joanna Stafford lives again in yet another adventure rife with romance, intrigue, mystery, mysticism, and religious fervor. Summoned to Whitehall by the King through Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal, Joanna is to meet with the Master of the King’s Wardrobe to discuss a commission. However, instead of meeting him, she is diverted by a mysterious assailant and detained in the castle by young Catherine Howard, destined to be Henry VIII’s fifth wife. When she is named curator of the King’s arras collection, another tale of betrayal, distrust, edge-of-your-seat suspense is sparked, taking Joanna and her faithful readers through romping, rambling adventures and romantic interludes in England, Spain, and Germany. With her endless narrow escapes and almost hard-to-believe escapades (there is always a last minute reprieve and/or rescuer!), this dauntless character is almost too good to be true, even if spawned from the author’s vivid imagination. A “wonder woman” of her era, she is quite full of herself – no nun-like humility here – as she gambles and cavorts through historical events with various real members of the high courts of England and Europe including Thomas Culpeper, Hans Holbein the Younger, the Earl of Surrey (her cousin), various Bishops of the Church of England, Charles V, Jane Boleyn (sister to the ill-fated Anne), and, of course, Catherine Howard and King Henry himself. It is often hard to believe some of our deft heroine’s experiences, let alone her motives. Yet this riveting tale of mystery and intrigue is not resolved until the exciting ending.
As I mentioned in my April 2013 review of The Chalice, Bilyeau’s fairly stiff, formal writing is dispassionate, without emotion, reading like a “…fictionalization of what the author wants the reader to assume to be true. And unless one is as well-versed in the historical minutia of Henry’s court, it is difficult to separate the historical characters from the fantasized ones.” While her style has not changed, Bilyeau still gives us a historical literary romance that, once started, is quite hard to put down. A novel with a solid story, it is a compelling read even if it is a slightly altered, repetitious clone of its predecessors.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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