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Book Review: The Chalice

By (April 2, 2013) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Tudorsthe chalice

The Chalice

by Nancy Bilyeau

Touchstone, 2013

Historical novelist Nancy Bilyeau has already given readers one novel featuring headstrong and well-born Dominican nun Joanna Stafford, in 2012’s The Crown, which was justly praised as a dark, atmospheric, character-driven historical thriller, a Tudor-era novel of rare depth. Now Joanna Stafford returns in The Chalice, which sports a boring cover, runs to nearly 500 pages, and is in every way a superior novel to its predecessor. The basic structure is similar: in this novel, Joanna finds herself caught in a web of prophecy when her parents bring her to see the Holy Maid of Kent in the hopes that some alleged prophesying will shake her out of the ‘melancholy’ that’s gripped her ever since a dashing courtier named George Boleyn tried to rape her. The Maid is cryptic (as people in the prophesying racket tend to be), but the next pseudo-mystic Joanna consults (there are to be three in all) has more specifics in mind:

“I see Mary as queen. She walks with a man in cardinal’s robes. And a bishop too. There are priests with her and nuns and monks. The true Faith is restored.”

“I see a different vision … The king has a second son. Henry VIII will die. Edward will die. Cromwell stands behind the boy who is king now, he rules the land … The Lady Mary is in a prison cell; she is abandoned. Cromwell and the boy king are feared by all.”

Needless to say, Joanna is baffled and a bit angered by this:

“How can there be two futures?” I demanded.

“You are the key to all. You will set the path the future must follow.”

The future hinges, as readers of Tudor fiction might suspect, on Henry VIII’s break with the Church. Bilyeau has an involved and exciting story to unfold (complete with yet more exposure to heroic Edmund Sommerville)(complete also with the Maguffin of the title, which keeps everybody busy for two-thirds of the action), but even so, one of the most satisfying elements of her book (an element that aligns it neatly with H. F. M. Prescott’s great novel The Man on a Donkey) is the way it immerses its readers in the protracted trauma of a country changing its old religion for a new one.

That trauma embroils Joanna in conspiracies she would never have imagined in her days of tranquility, as she realizes during a knife-fighting practice later in the novel, under the training of the forceful and enigmatic Jacquard:

I wanted to be dangerous. That’s what hate had done to me. And that is why, deep in my soul, I feared these sessions with Jacquard. They forced me to confront a side of myself that was twisted, savage. I had fallen so low from my time as a Dominican novice. Then I had believed in peace and sacrifice and forgiveness. Now I rarely prayed, except for the courage not to falter when the time came for me to strike.

The skill of The Chalice is that although Joanna may spend most of the novel believing that she has ceased to be worthy, the reader never believes it for a second; this is a richly-imagined character, as full of intelligence and contradictions as Matthew Shardlake, the hunchbacked hero of C. J. Sansom’s Tudor novels, with which Bilyeau’s books bear complimentary comparison. Both series stand as salient reminders that history happened to real people; we need more historical fiction like this.