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Book Review: The Tapestry

By (March 9, 2015) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Tudorsthe tapestry cover

The Tapestry

by Nancy Bilyeau

Touchstone, 2015

Nancy Bilyeau continues her series featuring former Dominican Order novice Joanna Stafford (after 2013’s The Chalice) with latest novel, The Tapestry, in which our fiercely independent-minded heroine, whose religious order and personal life were thrown into turmoil when England’s King Henry VIII shuttered the monasteries and began confiscating Church lands and properties, is summoned to the palace of Whitehall to attend the wardrobe of her distant cousin the king. Henry might be intrigued by her skill at weaving tapestries, but he’s entirely ignorant of her skill at weaving intrigues; readers of Bilyeau’s previous novels will be familiar with the clandestine plots that have always circled around Joanna, whose uncle the Duke of Buckingham was executed for treason.

The hardships wrought on her family by the king haven’t exactly endeared him to Joanna, and when she arrives at Whitehall, she knows perfectly well she’s entering a nest of potential enemies:

It struck me that this was a very modern palace. I strained to remember what I knew of Whitehall – it was the London home of the bishops of York until Henry VIII’s first minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, took ownership and spent a fortune expanding it. After the king turned against Wolsey, he took Whitehall. Just as, years earlier, he had my uncle the Duke of Buckingham executed on trumped-up charges of treason and then took all his properties. That was what Henry VIII did – he took.

She’s no sooner set foot in Whitehall than she’s attacked by a mysterious page boy, fends him off, and finds herself surrounded by a cast of characters that will be familiar to all readers of Tudor fiction from the loathsome Lady Jane Rochford (“Just as when I first met her,” Joanna thinks, “that broad smile triggered in me a strong desire to run in the other direction”) to the Duke of Norfolk, the king’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell, the king’s current wife Anne of Cleves, and of course the King himself, here presented as a shambling physical monstrosity:

Henry VIII filled up the room with his presence: tall, broad, a crown atop his red hair, and draped with a diamond-laden pendant. We all of us made our obeisance, and he limped to the table, nodding … At first the king said little. His attention was on neither the queen nor myself but on the food. He was quite intent on a certain course – the stuffed capon – and visibly relaxed when it appeared, just after the civet of hare. Some worry he’d had over its sauce disappeared with the first bite, and his heavy jowls shook as he consumed slice after slice.

As Bilyeau unfolds her many expertly-handled plot lines, Joanna’s position at court becomes more and more dangerous, especially since her close friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the king’s new romantic obsession. Plots and counter-plots abound, and although Bilyeau must strain credulity very nearly to the breaking point in order to make her heroine both important and anachronistically modern-sounding (needless to say, in 1540 the niece of the Duke of Buckingham would not pertly tell the King in front of his court “Pride is a sin, Your Highness” and then go on her merry way, as Joanna does, but we expect a few such liberties, especially in Tudor fiction this deliciously enjoyable), she also succeeds in making her feel immediately human, caught between her hatred for Henry and his undeniable charisma:

I was in an odd way grateful for his coldness to Anne of Cleves, for it broken the spell. During the long discussion of tapestry, I had found it hard to hold on to my hatred of the king. It had almost seemed as if we were family, speaking of a common interest. His depth of knowledge of tapestry, his references and insights, were so exceptional that I had been quite carried away. But now I’d returned to earth. The king was a tyrant who had ordered the deaths of people I loved. He could never be my family.

The main storyline of The Tapestry is more ambitious than either of the previous two books in this series, and Joanna herself is painted with more subtlety and depth. These novels are growing steadily richer and more rewarding as Joanna’s life becomes more complex and uncertain. It’s very rewarding stuff, not to be missed by fans of Ariana Franklin and Hilary Mantel.