Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice
By: Nancy Bilyeau
Publisher: Touchstone
ISBN: 978-1-4767-0865-2


With the dissolution of Dartford Priory (detailed in Bilyeau's previous novel, The Crown), erstwhile novice Joanna Stafford is left reeling, stripped of her livelihood and calling in one devastating blow. With the Catholic Church out of favor, Joanna and her fellow sisters -- including the apothecary Brother Edmund -- live as veritable outcasts in the town of Dartford, shunned by those seeking to ride the ever-changing wave of the king's views on faith and the church. Determined to never again become a pawn in the schemes of powerful men like the wily Bishop Gardiner, Joanna seizes the chance to re-take control of her once well-ordered life. She makes plans to start a tapestry business, determined to stay true to the precepts of her beloved religious order in both word and deed. But this daughter of nobility is haunted by everything she's lost, and the eerie remembrance of a seer's promise that her life possesses a purpose inexorably entwined with everything she's learned to hate and fear -- the court and those in it determined to advance their own agenda, no matter how dangerous or destructive.

When her cousin Henry Courtenay, the powerful Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Gertrude appear in Dartford, begging Joanna for a visit, she agrees, little dreaming that by allying herself with the Courtenays she draws ever closer to the epicenter of a plot determined to bring Henry VIII to his knees and restore the true Catholic faith to England. Although Joanna assiduously strives to bury the horrific memory of disgraced and executed Sister Elizabeth Barton's claim that she is inextricably tied to the very future of England, Gertrude becomes obsessed with Joanna's alleged prophetic role in restoring England as a Catholic nation or risking Henry -- now on the hunt for his fourth wife -- securing reformist rule with the birth of a second prince. Grieving the once-bright promise of her lost life at Dartford Priory, Joanna is tempted to agree -- but fears the repercussions of associating herself with those who dabble in forbidden sorcery. Caught up in an intricate web engineered by power-hungry foreign kings, Joanna finds herself at a crossroads -- accept the prophecy and become its pawn, or embrace the uncertainty of her future and follow the dictates of her conscience, no matter the cost. And on her decision and resolve rests no less than the future of a nation and the very life of its king...

The Chalice was tasked with following an amazing predecessor, as The Crown is one of the best books I've read this year and one of the best debuts I've read, ever. And on balance, Bilyeau's sophomore offering delivers. She continues to illuminate lesser-known corners of Tudor England's history -- as through Joanna's eyes, we stand witness to the utter devastation that comes from the destruction of an entire way of life built on a faith and its practices centuries old. Where in The Crown Joanna's priory was still intact, and as a result the events of her search for the legendary Athelstan crown felt relatively contained, in The Chalice the protective boundaries surrounding Joanna's life have been stripped away, leaving her more vulnerable than ever to the pull of the aristocratic life she had once forsworn.

I'm left with mixed feelings about Joanna's character arc following this installment. Where her initial introduction showcased a vibrant, determined, intelligent woman of faith, here Joanna is anchor-less and understandably angry -- an anger that oft-times blinds her to sound advice, leaving her vulnerable to the negative affects of foolish, willful pride. While Bilyeau does an excellent job articulating Joanna's completely understandable grief, anger, and frustration at being forced to make a life for herself without the guidance of the conviction and rule of a monastic life, I wish it had been balanced with a bit more of the savvy survival skills she exhibits while still a novice. Her repeated rejection of help, familial or otherwise, particularly when offered by the (utterly irresistible) Geoffrey Scovill was grating at best and infuriating at worst. But while Joanna may have been maddening, the delicious, unrequited tension Geoffrey possesses for her -- and her maddening denial of the same -- powerfully speaks to Bilyeau's ability to pen fiery, memorable characters.

The Chalice is saturated with the history of the time period, gracefully illuminating the tension between the Catholic "old guard" and the heady pull of reform faith. Neither side is perfect or blameless, and Bilyeau does a masterful job of articulating the passionately held beliefs on each side of the religious schism threatening to split England in two. Joanna's second "quest" is every bit as fascinating and historically detailed as her first, but lacks some of the focus and intensity that characterized her search for the Athelstan crown. While Joanna's attempts to understand the prophecy that has haunted her life makes for compelling reading, it isn't until the novel's final act that the role of the chalice is revealed. The premise, particularly in how it is tied to Henry's unhappy union with Anne of Cleves, is a fascinating one, and the perfect illustration of Bilyeau's mastery in weaving fact and fiction. I just wish there had been some way to balance the mystery of the prophecies with the intrigue and political machinations surrounding Henry's fourth marriage.

Though The Chalice didn't have quite the level of finesse present in its sterling predecessor, it is nonetheless a worthy follow-up to Joanna and her search to find place and fulfillment in a world that, by her standards, has gone mad. A slow-burning thriller rich in atmosphere and historical detail, Bilyeau has a gift for bringing the attitudes and mores of the time period to vibrant life. Joanna's world is peppered with characters both fascinating and maddening in turns, but always sharply realized on the page. Joanna and her dangerous dance between forces both secular and religious is an intoxicating formula. Coupled with Bilyeau's sterling research and undeniable affinity for the time period, The Chalice is a satisfying entry in Joanna's life that leaves me more anxious than ever for the next glimpse -- its sequel (and with it, hopefully more page time for the heartbreaking Geoffrey!) cannot come quickly enough!

About the book:

In the midst of England’s Reformation, a young novice will risk everything to defy the most powerful men of her era.

In 1538, England’s bloody power struggle between crown and cross threatens to tear the country apart. Novice Joanna Stafford has tasted the wrath of the royal court, discovered what lies within the king’s torture rooms, and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic.

Even with all she has experienced, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Despite the possibilities of arrest and imprisonment, she becomes caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna realizes her role is more critical than she’d ever imagined. She must choose between those she loves most and assuming her part in a prophecy foretold by three seers. Repelled by violence, Joanna seizes a future with a man who loves her. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny.

To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with a corrupt spy sent by Spain. As she completes the puzzle in the dungeon of a twelfth-century Belgian fortress, Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lies at the center of these deadly prophecies. . . .

*Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the review opportunity, and my apologies for being so late with my scheduled post! Click here to read my review of Bilyeau's debut, The Crown.


LisaMM said...

Ruth, thank you so much for your review! I'm so glad you're enjoying this series. It sounds amazing!

Judith Starkston said...

I enjoyed your detailed, thoughtful review. I agree that Joanna's tendency to ignore Geoffrey's sound advice can be infuriating, but it's very true to life. I completely understand your sense of the anchorless feeling that Joanna suffers from in this book and how that challenges the reader as both Joanna and the reader find a place in this much wider world than The Crown presented. Smart review of a book I enjoyed very much.