The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
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.
*** *** ***
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!