Careful folks, I’m about to gush! I enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau’s The Crown and its sequel, The Chalice, that much!
I think the best thing a historical novel can do is take a historical situation we’re all familiar with in some broad sense – say, the Great Depression or the Fall of the Roman Empire – and give the reader an idea of what it would actually be like to be one of the myriad people caught up in the historical circumstance. Not necessarily the people making the policy or winning the wars – there’s plenty of great academic history written about the kings, queens, presidents and popes that set the world spinning in one direction or another. Rather, I generally prefer historical novels in which those characters are secondary to “real people” who are dealing with the circumstances that they have purposefully or accidentally created. That is what Nancy Bilyeau has done with Sister Joanna – given us a window into what it would be like to live through Henry VIII’s brutal suppression of the Catholic Church.
By the way of backstory, one of the best seminars I ever took as an undergraduate was called “Tudor-Stewart Britain,” taught by a professor who was taken from the world far too early, Michael Foley. Needless to say, the
In The Crown, Joanna goes through the first stage of mourning for her lost world: disbelief. She believes that events will somehow be turned around. And as it turns out, oily Bishop Gardiner of Winchester thinks he can use her relationship to Dartford Abbey to find the legendary Athelstan Crown, which has the magical power to bring Henry VIII – and his reforms – down. The book reads like a historical mystery, as we watch Sister Joanna try to figure out the mystery of where the crown may be kept. But there are other mysteries going on in the abbey as well, including the strange behavior of some of Joanna’s fellow novices. Oh, and there’s also a handsome, mysterious stranger who seems to have a knack for saving Joanna’s life. And a couple of displaced monks who help provide her with clues. I found it a total page-turner, even though I know how the history turns out, obviously, so we know going in that Sister Joanna can’t possibly succeed in ending the reforms she opposes so deeply.
By The Chalice, Joanna has moved onto the next phase of mourning: anger. Evicted from her abbey, and unwilling to live with her Stafford cousins, she is forced to try and make her way in the world – not a simple thing for an unmarried woman in Tudor England. She is not without means, being a distant relative of the king, and is able to come up with the money to buy a loom and begin a tapestry business. But the magical arc of the story continues, with a prophesy that indicates that she is the one who is meant to change the course of history. The only thing is, she has to willingly hear the second two parts of the prophesy, and she is not willing to be drawn into the fray again. But, of course, history intervenes, and her fury eventually leads her back into the Tudor Court – and eventually into the path of the famous mystic, Nostradamus.
I liked The Chalice even better than The Crown, because all the layers of intrigue helped illustrate how the English Reformation was viewed not only within England, but in other countries. Bilyeau also expanded the cast of characters, giving us insight into how dangerous the world of even the Tudor’s closest confidants could be if they appeared to be at all disloyal. The action never stopped – in fact, I read it cover to cover on a plane ride back from London. Having just seen Salisbury Cathedral, which was partially destroyed during the dissolution, I had an easy time imagining exactly what Sister Joanna had lost, and why she would be so frustrated by its loss.
The characters are beautifully drawn, but not at all black and white. Everyone’s motives are suspect – even Joanna’s at some points. Obviously, having left the abbey, there is more room for romance in the second novel, and constable Geoffrey Scoville seems like a likely candidate. But former friar Edmund Sommerville is also clearly smitten with Joanna. And when the romantic plot gets twisted up with the mystical prophesy plot and the historical facts, Bilyeau manages to weave it all together like a beautiful tapestry. It was the kind of book that I was sad to finish, because I knew if it was on a book tour, the next book in the series probably wasn’t out yet! It kept me that interested.
I definitely have to thank Audra at Unabridged Chick, one of the book blogger world’s go-to people for historical fiction. Her earlier review of The Chalice really piqued my interest, and when she mentioned it was the second book in a series, I mentally put them on both on my TBR. About a week later I found out they were on a TLC book tour and jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. I received a complimentary copy of both books – and only the books – in return for my honest opinion. Thanks, as always, to Lisa for including Col Reads on the tour. For other opinions on this fantastic title, please look here.