Mystery and Survival in the Court of Henry VIII

The Tapestry: A Novel, by Nancy Bilyeau, read by Nicola Barber, (High Bridge Audio), 13 and 1/4 hours on 11 discs, released 24 March, 2015

In theory, my commute should be a quick one, but theory and reality in commutes are two different things. As a result, when I’m driving the 20 miles that take an hour when they should only take half that, I listen to books on CD. As a result, I was absolutely delighted when I found I’d won an audiobook version of Nancy Bilyeau’s The Tapestry through LibraryThing’s early reviewer program.

Set during the waning years of Henry VIII’s rule (Catherine Howard, wife number five, rises and falls over the course of the novel), The Tapestry is a rather open-ended mystery novel. This book is the second in what will no doubt be a series with several more volumes. Now, while I love Tudor-era mysteries, I have little patience for Tudor-era romances, so I was a bit trepidatious when I slipped disc one into the CD player. As it turns out, the novel didn’t contain an overabundance of romance. Yes, there’s a bit of romance, but the plot is primarily driven by the politics of Henry’s court and the larger world—which is all for the good as far as I’m concerned.

One of the aspects of The Tapestry that captured my attention right away was the identity of the narrator. Dominican novice Joanna Stafford was one of many religious left homeless after Henry’s dissolution of the religious houses. She’s already participated in one plot against the King and now is determined to keep her head low—thereby keeping her head fully attached to her shoulders. As a result, Joanna is now working as a weaver in a small town a day’s ride from London.

I’ve read Tudor-era mysteries with Protestant protagonists, with agnostic protagonists, and with Catholic protagonists, but The Tapestry is the first Tudor-era mystery I’ve read with a narrator who genuinely loathes Henry—and with good reason. Normally he’s presented as unpredictable and intimidating, but a character viewed with a mix of fear and respect. To hear the voice of someone who genuinely despises him—and a former nun (well, near nun) at that—is fascinating.

Joanna is, unfortunately, brought to the King’s attention by Anne of Cleves (wife number four), who purchases one of Joanna’s tapestries as a gift for the King. Joanna is unwillingly summoned to court and given a position as the King’s tapestry mistress. Naturally, she is under the King’s eye a great deal and deeply worried as to when he might learn of her part in the earlier conspiracy to bring him down.

At court, Catherine is reacquainted her cousin Catherine Howard, meets Thomas Cullpepper, is the target of several intricate murder plots, and travels to protestant Europe on a buying trip for the King. In other words, there’s action a-plenty, but it’s well-balanced by the depiction of Joanna’s inner life.

If you’re looking for a good summer read with a strong heroine, a wicked King, victims both innocent and guilty, a touch of witchcraft, and religious schism, this is the book for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *