Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: THE CHALICE by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau's THE CHALICE (Touchstone, March 2013) offers an engrossing and original take on aspects of the Tudor era that historical fiction seldom explores. The novel presents an enticing blend of history, romance and page-turning suspense that invigorates the discussion of religious turmoil in England and provides an entertaining and convincing escape into an important yet often overlooked stretch of Henry's reign.

When Henry VIII closes religious houses across England, novice Joanna Stafford, daughter of an English nobleman and one of Katherine of Aragon's Spanish ladies-in-waiting, hopes to supplement her meagre pension by establishing a tapestry-weaving business. The day she lugs home the first piece of her new loom, her life changes--but not in any way she'd expected. Her cousin Henry Courtenay, a trusted relation of the king, and his wife Gertrude arrive to invite her to spend time with them in London. A high-ranking family loyal to the Catholic faith, the Courtenays secretly scheme to place the Princess Mary on the throne and restore the true faith in England. Joanna finds herself swept up in a plot targeting King Henry, a plot that hinges on Joanna herself. Years earlier, a seer who tried to prevent Henry VIII's divorce had declared Joanna to be "the one who would come after"--the one who, after hearing the entire prophecy as revealed by two additional seers, would set in motion events that would alter England's history. Joanna's involvement with Gertrude Courtenay, and through her, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain, propels Joanna to embrace her fate and race to uncover the prophecy before Henry fathers the sons that will ensure the supremacy of the Reformed Faith in England forever.

THE CHALICE places the religious turmoil unleashed by Henry VIII in an international context, capturing the turbulence of a time when Henry seemed to waver in his religious convictions and his opponents nurtured high hopes that Charles V might set things right. The prominence of the Emperor and his representatives in THE CHALICE is a splendid addition to standard Tudor fare. Despite being one of the three preeminent monarchs of the Tudor era, Charles seldom features in historical fiction. Although he does not appear in person in THE CHALICE, his constant menace finds expression through the machinations and relentless persistence of his wily ambassador Eustace Chapuys, with whom Joanna forges a reluctant alliance. THE CHALICE dramatizes how Henry's decision to break with Rome upset the balance of power in Europe and not only placed England in danger of being invaded by Spain and France, but encouraged France to flirt openly with an Ottoman alliance. Joanna's involvement with Imperial agents in an international plot underscores how Henry changed not just the course of English history, but that of all Catholic Europe. I have been immersed in research about Charles V for my own novel, set in France during the same years as THE CHALICE (1538-40), and it is exciting to see another author evoke the complicated contours of this era.

Bilyeau balances this broad political focus with attention to the effects of Henry's actions on the lives of individual believers. The novel's principal characters all confront decisions that pit their personal beliefs against the will of the king. Powerful noblemen must choose between allegiance to their faith or to their anointed monarch; dispossessed nuns must betray their vows and marry in order to survive; defrocked monks consider violence in order to protect holy relics; servants must decide whether to protect or reveal the activities of their recusant employers. Joanna's personal conflicts are many and involve her heart as well as her head. Looming foremost is the question of whether to pursue the prophecy despite her aversion to such practices and what to do with the knowledge once she gains it. With courage and great personal sacrifice, Joanna follows a course of action that offers her Catholic brethren in England continued hope yet does not betray her principles. Convincing in her faith and endearing in her loyalties, Joanna is a heroine to admire. I look forward to following her on further adventures. In THE CHALICE, a stand-alone novel that may be read in conjunction with the author's debut, THE CROWN (2012), Bilyeau has crafted a deft novel that will appeal to readers of suspense as well historical enthusiasts looking for a unique take on a popular era.


Come back tomorrow to read my interview with Nancy Bilyeau about THE CHALICE. To learn more about Nancy and her books, visit her website.

This review is part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for THE CHALICE. To read the other reviews and interviews that are part of the tour, see the tour schedule

Friday, April 26, 2013

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"The king's bed is always carried with him, when he [François I] hunts, and anon, after that the deer is killed, he repairs to some house near at hand, where the same is set up, and there reposes himself three or four hours, and against his return there is provided for him a supper by some nobleman...whereupon a great number of ladies and gentlewomen used to be in his company be sent for, and there he passes his time until ten or eleven o'clock."

Sir Anthony Browne, after witnessing a royal hunt near Amiens in 1527
Quoted in The French Renaissance Court by Robert Knecht, p. 80

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Natural Selection among the Hapsburgs

Philip II of Spain exhibited
the signature Hapsburg
pointed jaw.
Geneticists at a Spanish university claim that the Spanish Hapsburgs evolved to mute the effects of inbreeding. Inbred marriages, such as those between between first cousins or between uncles and nieces, were common in the Hapsburg pedigree and multiplied over time for political and dynastic reasons. Such marriages increased the odds that children would inherit two copies of a recessive mutation that causes disease or disability. Indeed, inbreeding was the probable cause for the high rates of disease in the Spanish royal family.

However,  natural selection might have played a role in weeding out those individuals who bore the worst disabilities so that mutations would not be passed on to subsequent generations. The scientists theorized that natural selection would operate through early death. If natural selection was indeed purging the family of harmful mutations, then early deaths would become less frequent over time. The scientists studied 4000 individuals across more than 20 generations of Hapsburgs and found evidence that there were substantially more deaths among the family's children between 1450 and 1600 than between 1600 and 1800. However, infant mortality rose over time, leading the geneticists to posit differences between the effects of very harmful mutations, which were eventually purged by natural selection, and mutations that caused problems only some of the time.

Other geneticists disagree with the researchers' conclusions. You can read the article here.