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Many historical novels explore the highways and byways of Tudor England, especially the marital troubles of Henry VIII, which makes it all the more pleasant when an author approaches that much-visited time and place with a fresh eye. In her The Cross and the Crown series–which currently consists of The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King's Sisters–Sarah Kennedy looks at Henry's roller-coaster search for marital happiness and male progeny from the viewpoint of a young nun cast out of her convent and flung into a strange interim state where she can neither practice her religion nor marry without the express permission of the king.
We meet Catherine Havens in 1535. King Henry has recently declared the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the local gentry sees a chance to increase its landholdings at the expense of Catherine's convent–a development that her abbess in no way supports but cannot prevent. When the convent chapel's large and valuable altarpiece goes missing, the questions raised by the theft and the attempts to retrieve it sweep Catherine into a secular world that her sheltered background has not prepared her to handle. The situation only deepens in future books, as the king's constantly shifting moods, loves, alliances, and attitudes toward religion keep his realm in equally constant turmoil–the only certainty that a misstep will lead to torture and execution.
In this atmosphere, no one is safe. Yet Catherine and the other "king's sisters," a group that includes his divorced wife Anne of Cleves, strive to care for his children while remaining true to their consciences. That Catherine is also a gifted physician (although a woman cannot bear that title, and the line between medicine and witchcraft at times wears disturbingly thin) offers her both a means of support and a certain protection amid the many dangers that beset even secondary affiliates of the royal court. The King's Sisters (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2015) opens a window on a world in which the fate of Anne Boleyn is but one reminder of King Henry's caprice.