"It is 1535 and in the tumultuous years of King Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the religious houses of England are being seized by force. Twenty-year-old Catherine Havens is a foundling and the adopted daughter of the prioress of the Priory of Mount Grace in a small Yorkshire village. Catherine, like her adoptive mother, has a gift for healing, and she is widely sought and admired for her knowledge.
Catherine’s hopes for a place at court have been dashed by the king’s divorce, and she has reluctantly taken the veil. In the remote North, the nuns enjoy the freedoms unavailable to other women. England is their home, but the times have changed, and now the few remaining nuns dread the arrival of the priory’s new owner, Robert Overton. When the priory’s costly altarpiece goes missing, Catherine and her friend Ann Smith find themselves under increased suspicion.
Only the illness of Robert’s brother, William, preserves the nuns from immediate expulsion and arrest. Catherine heals him, and when she undertakes a quest across England, he offers to accompany her and Ann. They visit the deposed queen, and during their journey to uncover the truth, Catherine begins to doubt her church and her God. She finds herself drawn to William, even though he has spoken his oath to the crown and serves her greatest enemy.
King Henry VIII’s soldiers have not had their fill of destruction, and when they return to Mount Grace to destroy the priory, Catherine must choose between the sacred calling of her past and the man who may represent her country’s future."
Like I said, I enjoyed this book more than I expected to - and it's not that I had low expectations for it, but I immediately thought of Nancy Bilyeau's novel, "The Crown," and simply thought that no "Reformation England novel from the viewpoint of a devout nun" could possibly compare. Well, I maintain that "The Crown" is in a league of its own, but it's also an entirely different kind of story from "The Altarpiece." That was a relief for me.
When the beloved altarpiece (a painting of the Madonna and Child - aka the cover art), goes missing one night, a mystery envelopes the convent and sets the sisters off to discover who stole their precious painting, and who committed a series of murders that follows this initial thievery. Catherine is at the heart of the madness, and so is the brother of the convent's soon-to-be master. Robert Overton is feared among the nuns, and as he should be. He is unafraid of destroying everything in his way, since Mount Grace will soon be his estate. But his brother, William, is different. Not only is he gentler, but he is kind and attractive to Catherine. Of course, you can guess where this situation might lead to a predicament for a woman who will soon be forced to choose between the threatened and dangerous life of a nun, or that of a married woman. Hm.
I like the way this story was written. I'll be careful not to give away any spoilers in this review, but I will say that the story was well laid out, and I liked the characters. At times, this somewhat dark story was even made a bit humorous, thanks to some witty dialogue. I liked Sarah Kennedy's style, and would definitely continue to read this series.
Another thing that I enjoyed was the fact that the novel stayed away from court. We never met Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn, though they were referred to several times, as is expected. We did, however, get to see Katherine of Aragon in her prison of Kimbolton Castle - an angle of her story that I haven't read much about in novels, so I appreciated that.
Overall, I found the story interesting. It came with a punch of surprise at the end, and a twist that I didn't see coming. Some romance, some danger, a lot of blood, and a bit of humor - I think this novel is a great addition to any Tudor Enthusiast's library. I can only imagine that the characters will continue to develop and the story will progressively become more and more interesting as we continue through the rest of the series. I don't have the second one at the moment, but I will be continuing on with the third one in the near future, and hope I'll be as impressed with that as I was with "The Altarpiece."
Thank you, Sarah Kennedy, for allowing me the chance to read and review your novel! And Tudor Enthusiasts, I hope you'll pick this one up. I bet you'll enjoy it!