Review: The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

Thursday, March 13, 2014
Title: The Chalice
Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Crown #2
Pages: 485 (paperback edition)
Published: February 28 2013
Source: publicist for review
Rating: 5/5

In the next novel from Nancy Bilyeau after her acclaimed debut The Crown, novice Joanna Stafford plunges into an even more dangerous conspiracy as she comes up against some of the most powerful men of her era.

In 1538, England is in the midst of bloody power struggles between crown and cross that threaten to tear the country apart. Joanna Stafford has seen what lies inside the king’s torture rooms and risks imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting the King. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna understands she may have to assume her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more omniscient than the last.

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 lays at the center of these deadly prophecies…

"We are a chain, Sister Joanna, honoring who's come before and helping the ones yet to come. That's why we take vows, to become part of something bigger than ourselves. What do we do when the chain is severed destroyed by our king?"
p. 255-256

With The Chalice, Nancy Bilyeau ably returns to her widely loved historical fiction series starring the capable and intelligent Joanna Stafford. The sequel to the wildly successful series debut The Crown, this second novel featuring this intrepid and determined former novice of Dartford Priory does not lose a step returning the reader to the tumultuous era of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII. The same talent for narrative and for period detail that marked Bilyeau's debut story is just as much in evidence in round two and makes for an impossible-to-put-down novel. As with my reading experience with The Crown, The Chalice immediately ensnared me in this deftly plotted and smartly executed story. A done in one day read, I finished this novel immediately ready for a hopeful continuation of the series with a third novel.

The main character of Joanna remains a strong, stubborn, and a complicated but strong female protagonist in an era where females were expected to be submissive and/or silent. "A woman of difficult humors", Joanna's fictional life is as convoluted and complicated as one would expect of an ex-religious Catholic living during the whims of a dangerous King that sees enemies in every corner and in every meeting of nobles. Adrift in life once deprived of her religious home, Joanna finds herself facing all-new troubles in her now forced-secular life. New manipulations and maneuvers, dangerous plots and convoluted conspiracies, as well as fresh adversaries and old enemies rear their heads to involve the half-Spanish noblewoman in their aims for the future for the Kingdom of England. With only her former sisters, Brother Edmund and the stalwart Constable Geoffrey as true allies, Joanna finds herself in an all-new, and deeply personal, not to mention highly dangerous, political snare.

Joanna is not the same person that she was; the events of the first book and the dissolution of the monasteries having had a dramatic effect on all aspects of her life. Her convictions and beliefs that guide her remain the same, but the doubt and uncertainty of both the safety and longevity for her way of life have crept into her existence. Joanna's evolution and characterization have been ably carried out through the events of both books. Her day-to-day life may have changed irrevocably, between her exodus and the adoption of a young child into her care, but the character's voice remains the same throughout. Her core remains the same, but her actions and reactions have adjusted to the paths she has been forced on by Gardiner, or Norfolk, or other powerful people. Through all that she endures, Joanna's strength character is shown again and again to be a strong and capable woman -- even though it oftentimes seems this ex-novice spends almost as much time incarcerated as she ever did in the cloisters.

The time and attention subtly paid to the details of the story make reading The Chalice an all-enveloping, atmospheric journey. Fascinating characters, prophecy, adventure and espionage all add up to make this second in a series just as inviting and interesting as its predecessor. High on emotion, with no shortage of drama, this book is of a different breed than was The Crown. Political angles, slight supernatural aspects, and religious contemplation align the two, but the former's plot revolved around more of a mystery. The Chalice comes across as more of a historical fiction thriller than a typical whodunit, but loses none of the tension used so well in the first novel. Through all six parts of the narrative, Bilyeau keens a steady hand with suspense, driving Joanna and the audience towards an exciting and dynamic conclusion. As the story winds to and end and the answers are forthcoming, Bilyeau doesn't let up. Hard choices and heartbreak are no stranger to the characters of the novel and provide an easy opening for a further continuation of the series.

The Chalice is a great historical fiction read. It's intricately plotted, well-crafted in both characters and detail, and as an added bonus, it's just fun to read. Nancy Bilyeau takes one of the most interesting times in English history and infuses it with life and mystery. It's never plodding or slow, and even the romantic mishaps add to overall story rather than detract from the plot progression. Famous and factual historical figures are woven seamlessly into the narrative Lady Mary Tudor, Catherine Howard, Eustace Chapuys, Sister Elizabeth Barton, Michel de Nostredame, among others but keep from overwhelming the key players. Nancy Bilyeau set an impressive and high standard with The Crown, but if anything, The Chalice improves upon the author's first novel.

This was a great, fully entertaining read. Unpredictable, never boring, I utterly loved every page, from beginning to end. I loved the first - inhaled it, even - but for me, The Chalice is even better. For once, the hype is warranted. If you've thought about reading either of these novels, do so. Now.

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