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


Linda Root said...

What an adventure it is to travel into 16th century northern europe.

Julianne Douglas said...

It is! Thanks for reading.

Dee M. said...

Interesting post. I'll be sure to check the book out. I've always been enchanted by the lure of old Europe, titled royalties, and monarchial politics.

Julianne Douglas said...

I hope you enjoy it, Dee!