Author:  Nancy Bilyeau
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 3/5/2013
Pages: 485
How Acquired:  Net Galley/TLC Book Tours

What it’s about:  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.

My thoughts:   I’d heard good things about Nancy Bilyeau’s first novel THE CROWN last year but I couldn’t bring myself to read it.  It was about a former nun for one, and I’d spent twelve years being taught by Episcopalian nuns.  The last thing I wanted to do was read about one.  It was also set during my least favorite time period, the reign of King Henry VIII.  So while everyone was heaping praise on the novel, I sat on the sidelines.   But then I was offered the opportunity to review Nancy’s new book THE CHALICE, and I was in a different mindset.  I thought ‘why not?’  So I sat down last week and downloaded the book onto my NOOK and then didn’t put it down until I was finished.  In fact, I resented doing things like having to go to work because it interrupted my reading time. 
Joanna Stafford is exactly my kind of heroine, she’s impatient, has a bad-temper, asks questions when she shouldn’t.  She resents the idea that she has some sort of role to play that has been prophesied; in fact she fights the idea ¾ of the way through the book before she finally accepts her responsibility.  At times she’s too stubborn for her own good, but I like that in a heroine.  She’s half Spanish, her mother was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, and so her behavior is sometimes excused for that reason.  At the beginning of the book, Joanna believes that her life has settled down after her first adventure.  She has a good life in Dartford, raising her cousin Margaret Bulmer’s son Arthur.  She even has a plan for making a living, weaving tapestries.  Although she had planned to spend her life cloistered in a Dominican nunnery, and misses the life that should have been hers, Joanna adapts easily to life outside the nunnery walls.  No doubt this is because she entered the cloistered life later than most women, and her time as a novice was brief.

What I enjoyed about this book was Joanna’s struggles against the role that she is fated to play, and that she was an active heroine.  Joanna doesn’t wait for things to happen to her in the novel, she seeks them out.   I was surprised that she had two different men in her life, both of whom have feelings for her in different ways, Geoffrey Scovill and Brother Edmund.  Although Joanna had planned to spend her life as a nun, she still is all too human, with all the frailties that come along with being human. She’s no saint, nor does she aspire to be.  It was a very interesting choice to have Joanna related to the Stafford family, who like Henry VIII were descended from both Edward III and the Woodville's.  It means that you have a character who is not only related to everyone that matters but who has a reason to get involved in what is going on.

The book is equal parts, historical mystery and thriller, and it moves at a breakneck pace until the final scenes.  I was pretty amazed at what the dénouement turned out to be. It was extraordinarily clever I must say and it explains a bit of history that people have often wondered about.  I don’t want to spoil the story by revealing too much.  I just recently read that there will be a third book in the series, which makes me very happy, although now I have to go back and read the first book damnit!  I will admit that I did spend some time looking up some of the historical characters on Wikipedia.  Bilyeau neatly weaves in the historical events regarding Henry VIII’s systematic removal of the remaining Plantagenets who could conceivably have a claim to the throne.  I found myself fascinated by the turmoil and havoc that Henry VIII's decision to wrench control of the church from Rome had on England. A decision that still has ramifications today.

My verdict:   This is a superbly written, historical thriller, an enticing brew filled with intriguing characters, politics, emotional turmoil, and religion, all served up with sumptuous historical detail.  A must read.


Unknown said…
I just started this book and am loving it so far! I read The Crown last month and was just blown away!
Nancy Bilyeau said…
Thank you for this incredible review, and Ruth, I'm happy to hear you're enjoying the books.


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