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Nancy Bilyeau – The Chalice

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An attempt to end the Reformation.

Publisher: Orion Books
Pages: 427
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-409-13309-4
First Published: 28th February 2013
Date Reviewed: 26th February 2013
Rating: 4/5

Joanna Stafford, ex-novice at the dissolved Dartford priory, is trying to get used to the secular life. But when her cousin visits the town and it becomes apparent that his wife wishes to continue the proceedings of the prophecy Joanna heard from Elizabeth Barton1, the novice has a choice to make. Does she refuse, and live in danger of those who wish Protestantism gone, or does she agree to work towards the deposition of the formidable Henry VIII?

The Chalice is a cleverly written novel that looks at the effects of the dissolution on those it impacted the most, and provides a semi-plausible and well-implemented reasoning for much of the happenings during the time between Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves.

Considering the success of the book historically, it makes sense to discuss what does not work first. Whilst the secondary and “background” characters are factual, the main characters have been created by Bilyeau to varying effect. Some are mostly there to provide knowledge and opinions of the period – for example, although Brother Edmund is of importance to Joanna, his value to the reader is surely as a source of social information. Bilyeau’s creations may not always fit into the history entirely but their stories are woven into the factual events enough; it is less a case of pausing for thought, more a case of pausing for wonderment.

However Joanna herself is a complex and difficult character. She changes her mind constantly and although one can understand her hesitation and continuous worry there is something not quite right about it. One day she will adamantly be against something, the next very much for it, and she continually backs out when she’s already come too far.

Indeed whilst Joanna is a much-needed representation of the stricken Sister, she is perhaps too much an example of the stereotypical weak woman. Seeing that Joanna is supposedly well-read and strong in other ways it does cause confusion. An otherwise wise woman who suddenly decides to reveal her background whilst undercover is incomprehensible. She doesn’t think about how her actions will ruin careful planning and makes for an incredibly bad agent. Strange also is Joanna’s dislike of admirers when she constantly leads them on.

But however odd these factors are, they do not mean that Joanna is a bad character overall. As suggested she is a good source for learning about the affects of the Reformation and has been placed into the factual history with care.

All this usage of history is what sets Bilyeau’s book on a pedestal. The author never lets her own ideas come in the way of truth, and instead of pulling the reader away from it she finds the gaps where she can insert her characters so that they don’t disrupt. Bilyeau will take a snippet, for example the exact way an ambassador discovered information (which historians do not know), and pitch her characters as the sources. It is for this reason that even the most vigilant of readers, those on the lookout for liberties taken, should be able to relax. Bilyeau may not be the only author to value accuracy, but her method is rather unique and completely satisfying. She even supplies a reason for Henry VIII’s impotence in his later life – unnecessary really, but still absolutely gripping.

Whilst the premise rests on mystery and spying, the book does not move with any speed; it drifts along comfortably, taking its time. In the hands of another author this might have been a negative aspect, but Bilyeau’s focus on social history and detailing the setting mean that whilst you want to know about the intrigue, you are happy just to wait. And you can rest safe in the knowledge that Bilyeau will reveal all.

The Chalice is the book for those who love Tudor nobles but are bored with life at court (your average Tudor noble would have welcomed this book). It may be repetitive at times (everyone always says “no, no, no!”) but on the whole it is a very, very good book. Whilst officially a sequel it can be read by itself as the references to The Crown are detailed enough, and perhaps most importantly it gives a much needed voice to the victims of the changed society.

A superior novel of the dissolution and attempted restoration, The Chalice will delight readers of historical, spy, and perhaps even Christian fiction.

1 The nun, or “Holy Maid” of Kent. Barton prophesied the death of Henry VIII if he married Anne Boleyn, and was killed for it.

I received this book for review from Historical Fiction Virtual Books Tours.

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February 27, 2013, 12:02 pm

I’m read both your’s and Helen (She Reads Novels) reviews for this book, and I am now very intrigued about this author and series.


February 27, 2013, 2:00 pm

This sounds like something I might enjoy :) I’ll keep my eyes open for it!

Audra (Unabridged Chick)

February 27, 2013, 6:07 pm

GREAT review — I’m going to reread it and comment when I finish The Chalice as I am so intrigued by your comments on Joanna and the characters.


February 27, 2013, 8:48 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed it! I also love the combination of fiction and factual history in Nancy Bilyeau’s books. Of the two I think I preferred The Crown as I found it a bit easier to follow but I did really like this one too.


February 28, 2013, 8:00 pm

I’m not huge on historical fiction, but I like the idea of a book set in this time not set at court.


March 3, 2013, 2:20 pm

Jessica: I’d definitely recommend you consider reading it, the style of it is so refreshing.

Jennifer: I think you probably would :)

Audra: In which case I look forward to your review!

Helen: I’m thinking I’ll have to get The Crown now, from what you said and what other reviews suggest, it sounds very good.

Liviania: Yes, it’s great to have a book with nobles but not at court. I do like books set at court, but after you’ve read a few you wonder about the majority of people – those outside of it.



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