The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

Title: The Chalice
Author: Nancy Bilyeau

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Tudor / Reformation / 16th century / Nuns / Religious Conspiracy / Henry VIII / Prophesies)
Publisher/Publication Date: Touchstone (3/5/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Former nun Joanna Stafford finds herself a part of a prophesy and a conspiracy in 16th century England.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- that blue is quite eye-catching!

I'm reminded of...: Mary Doria Russell,

First line: When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- get this and the first book and be very, very happy!

Why did I get this book?: I loved Bilyeau's first novel and have been on pins and needles waiting for this one.

Review: It's no secret the Tudor era is not a favorite of mine but Nancy Bilyeau makes me sing a different tune: first, with her fabulous novel The Crown and again this year with the sequel, The Chalice.

Returning to the 16th century and her ex-nun Joanna Stafford, this novel delves more into Joanna's life and past as well as the drama Henry VIII's decisions were wrecking on the country. As with The Crown, Bilyeau opens her novel with another fantastic first sentence -- When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love. -- and the story races from there.

Joanna struggles to make sense of her life and the rapid changes she's endured: once a dedicated nun, she's now living a secular life due only to a decree of the King and by no choice of her own. Raising her cousin's child -- a woman burned at the stake for treason -- Joanna hopes to make a living weaving tapestries when conspiracy and danger find her again.  Brought to London with the promise she won't be forced to go to court, Joanna instead is embroiled in a plot to return England to the Catholic Church when she factors into three prophesies, including one by Elizabeth Barton, the Mad Maid of Kent.  (Which, if there's going to be religious conspiracies, give me an oracle nun, and I'm in heaven.)

Although from a noble family, Joanna is hardly a typical courtier, which makes Bilyeau's novels such a refreshing entry in the Tudor genre.  Bilyeau articulates what it might have been like for those who took religious vows, forced by edict to abandon their life and their beliefs.  While the dissolution of those institutions might have ferreted out those who weren't truly religious, for those who were devoted -- like Joanna -- the world has upended. She still believes Henry VIII is divinely ordained, for example, and is rocked to the core when those around her suggest he isn't.

There are some hints of romance in this book, but there's a twist: Henry VIII banned former clergy, nuns, and monks from ever marrying.  Still, Joanna feels some attraction to men now -- a monk she's known, a sheriff she just recently met -- and she has to navigate this new tension as well.

I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how many liberties Bilyeau has taken (if any) but I loved the mix of historical and fiction.  Joanna is able to move through two worlds -- court life and religious life -- comfortably, and as an educated woman, has a smart 'voice' through which to tell her story.  (Although I will admit, she maddened me at times with her choices!)

For Tudor fans, I think this is a must (I've read a few reviews by folks who say this one can be read as a fine standalone, but I encourage you to start with The Crown), and for those tired of Tudor novels, but interested in meaty hist fic, pick up these two.  Joanna Stafford might be one of my top ten favorite heroines and I'm dying for the third book.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Chalice to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/26. For another entry, see my interview with Nancy Bilyeau!

Comments

  1. I'm not sure about that time period but I have a feeling my mom would like this book.

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    1. It's so good -- I'm totally not a Tudor fan but this book is so unlike other Tudor histfics -- while there's some look at court life, there's a broader cultural scope -- esp the religious communities -- that I found fascinating. So good!

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  2. I have this one, and like you, I have been waiting for it since I read The Crown. It really was a wonderful book, and from all that I have heard, this sequel is wonderful as well. I am so glad that you liked this one. It bodes well for me. Very nice review today!

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    1. Heather, this might even be better than The Crown -- it was so good! I can't wait to see what you think of it!

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  3. I'm not a big Tudor fan either, but I'm always interested in a different spin on them, and this series definitely qualifies. I too thought it was even better than The Crown. Great review, Audra!

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    1. I agree -- I loved the Crown but this one might have edged it out -- her books get better and better and I'm DYING for the next one!

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  4. I have to agree -- there's nothing like a mystic nun to spice up your reading week! And I actually love the Tudor period, so I can't wait to read this, Audra.

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    1. Hey! Good to see you again! And you will love this one, I think -- it's marvelous -- history and drama and a fantastic heroine. (Start with The Crown!)

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  5. This might be my favorite review for this book. I love love this series. I agree that it can be read as a standalone, but starting off with the Crown would make it a better experience. Joanna is rapidly becoming one of my favorite heroines - her life is interesting and varied, and her struggles are different from that of many hist. fic leads. I can't wait to see where Bilyeau goes next with this, but if Joanna doesn't end up a real nun OR marry Geoffrey I am going to be very sad.

    Great review, as always, Audra. I'm glad there's at least one Tudor series you enjoy!

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    1. Aww, you're so kind! I agree -- this series is actually at 'love' level, not like -- Bilyeau has just nailed it with the intrigue, historical setting, and characters. And I am sooooooooooooooo with you on the nun-or-Geoffrey quandry!!!

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  6. I'm not a big Tudor fan myself, but, since you addressed that, I've added The Crown to my to-read list. Always looking for awesome historicals!

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    1. Really, this one surpasses the Tudor label -- while it is as much about Henry VIII as other Tudor fics, it is also about personal identity, vocation, the plight of women, with a good dose of conspiracy and intrigue -- without having our heroine be one of Henry's mistresses. Very refreshing!

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  7. This was such a good book. I like how she used the history, it was unique, and yes, the viewpoint from the monks and nuns, rarely done!

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  8. Great review, Audra! I think this is a fantastic series and that Joanna is a wonderful heroine. I can't wait to see where Bilyeau takes Joanna next.

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  9. I enjoyed The Chalice but haven't read The Crown yet :p I actually AM a Tudor fan but I do get tired of the same old, same old stuff...Bilyeau really takes us down the road less traveled though. The Tudor era from the perspective of clergy who've been forced to adjust to the life of a regular citizen is interesting indeed :)

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  10. I liked The Crown very much so definitely I would like to read this one. Thank you for an amazing review.

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