Review: The Chalice

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The ChaliceThe Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
Series: Joanna Stafford #2
Published by Touchstone on March 5, 2013
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Pages: 496
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

The Chalice is a historical thriller told from the point of view of a young woman caught in the crosswinds of time: She has pledged to become a Dominican nun in an England ruled by Henry VIII, who has ruthlessly smashed his country's allegiance to Rome. By 1538, the bloody power struggles between crown and cross 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. 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. As she struggles to forge a life for herself in a country that rejects her faith, she must also decide if her future should be shared with a man--and if so, which of the two men who love her should be chosen.

Having gone straight from The Crown into The Chalice, I’m remarkably impressed by how largely consistent the two books are in quality, and I had a very similar reaction to this installment, which is to say largely positive but lacking that spark that really makes it a me book. In The Chalice, the stakes for Joanna Stafford are raised as it becomes more about her and less about Catholicism in general. Readers who loved The Crown will likely find that they are similarly thrilled by The Chalice.

Perhaps what I enjoy most about this series is its unique perspective on a heavily documented, in both fiction and nonfiction, historical period. We are obsessed with the Tudors, most specifically with King Henry VIII’s reign. The drama, the sex, the beheadings, and the betrayals make that period such ripe fodder for entertainment. As such, it’s been done to death, except that clever authors can still manage to put a unique spin on well-trodden ground. Rather than focusing on the usual suspects and court life, Bilyeau looks at this turbulent period in English history from the perspective of a novice nun, and puts the shift to Protestantism into sharp, personal relief.

Though not of a religious persuasion myself, the way that Bilyeau confronts these issues is fascinating. The former nuns, friars and monks are lost in this new world, the priories and monasteries having been dissolved at the end of The Crown. Some of the former religious personages manage to establish fairly ordinary lives, marrying and finding professions. Many, though, live together on their pensions, trying to keep life as much as it was before as is possible. Others, desperate, wander the kingdom in search of God and a sign, beaten and battered by the judgmental and fearful. Their world has changed so rapidly, which is all the more upsetting for those who have been cloistered in places of routine and unchanging order.

I still really like Joanna Stafford, but she wasn’t quite as level-headed in this one. She waffles back and forth between her two love interests and the possibility of being single. To distract herself from her indecision, she throws herself into absurdly idiotic schemes in the name of her faith without thinking them through. She gets arrested so many times and saved by her connections, thus embroiled into another huge scheme where she’s manipulated by other forces, wresting control for herself at the last minute through her badassery. The way that all came out just felt rather contrived. In addition, I wasn’t a huge fan of the mysticism angle, though it was an interesting interpretation of King Henry VIII’s difficulties fathering children.

Like with The Crown, The Chalice was a bit of a slow start for me, though I did get quite absorbed at certain junctures. The slowness was not aided by the one formatting change Bilyeau made, adding a prologue and epilogue to this installment. I did not much care for these, as they, like most, are intended merely to drum up dramatic irony. The prologue hints that Joanna might die, and then jumps back two months to wind the story forward. I’m not a fan of this narrative device at the best of times, but thought it particularly weak here, since the moment therein isn’t even the culmination of the main plot arc, but a minor, stupid plan. The epilogue just felt redundant and out of place, but is, likely, paving the way for book three.

All in all, I’m still quite impressed with this series and do plan to read the third book when it comes out. They’re definitely good reads for those who appreciate historical fiction with less of a focus on romance and sex scandals.

Favorite Quote:

“‘King Henry plays his part in the great game.’
Game?‘ I said.
‘The wars waged by kings for land and glory.'”

7 responses to “Review: The Chalice”

  1. Faye M. says:

    I’ve NEVER heard of this series. But now I’m totally thinking I should check it out. A lot of my friend love (and worship) the Tudors, but I never bought all that drama and court intrigue and stuff… I thought it must feel so exhausting to go through so many emotions, but I do admit that era was an interesting one. But wow! A book that sees it in a different perspective?? That’s amazing! Consider me sold! I will need to get this series ASAP 😀 Thanks for the lovely review, Christina!

    Faye @ The Social Potato

    • Christina says:

      While I enjoy the court intrigue stuff, the Tudor period is one I sort of try to avoid, just because there are so many like pop historians writing about it. Like, I know people love Philippa Gregory, but I tried one and was like NEVER AGAIN. Anyway, Nancy Bilyeau’s angle was a nice change from the sexed up historical fiction about the Tudors!

  2. I am so looking forward to the third! I wish we didn’t have to wait until next year, though. I read CROWN and CHALICE back to back as well and definitely would have been happy to move onto book three immediately.

  3. I’m glad to hear the two books are similar in quality. I really enjoyed The Crown so I’m looking forward to reading The Chalice sometime soon.

  4. To be honest, I’m a little tired of novels set during the Tudor period as I exhausted that phase when I was still in high school and haven’t been able to re-visit it again since. I read every fiction and non-fiction book I could get my hands on, and as such likely overdid it to the point that it’s now almost an immediate turn-off for me.

    That said, the premise for this series does sound fascinating. Like you, I appreciate that it’s told from an entirely different perspective, although I will say that from the sound of things the romance secondary storyline is entirely unnecessary. Given the weight of responsibility it seems as though Joanna is forced to shoulder, I can’t imagine that being embroiled in a love triangle would be of great concern. It sounds as though Bilyeau tried to do a little too much, and that the novel would have benefited from a slightly tighter focus.

    While I likely won’t be reading this series myself, I am happy to hear that they were consistent and that you enjoyed them 🙂 Sometimes all we can ask for is a consistent, good story that keeps us entertained!

  5. Amy says:

    Even though I don’t read much historical, this sounds like a good series. I don’t think it would be a series for me, but I’m glad that you are enjoying it.

  6. heathertlc says:

    “historical fiction with less of a focus on romance and sex scandals” Definitely the kind of HistFic that I prefer! I’m looking forward to starting this series soon.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

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