Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for Nancy Bilyeau’s new novel, The Chalice. This is the second in a series of historical thrillers set in the Tudor period and featuring Joanna Stafford, a former novice nun. Last year I read the first book, The Crown, and since then have been eagerly awaiting more of Joanna’s adventures.
In the previous book, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII meant that Joanna was forced to leave Dartford Priory before she had the opportunity to finish her period as a novice and become a full nun. It’s now 1538 and Joanna has had to rejoin the secular world where she is hoping to lead a peaceful life raising her cousin’s little boy, Arthur, and establishing her own tapestry business. But when she learns of a prophecy in which she plays an important role, she becomes caught up in a plot to overthrow the King and restore the Catholic religion in England.
Although this is the second Joanna Stafford book I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have read the previous novel before this one, but readers of The Crown will enjoy learning more about Joanna’s background and her past as both the daughter of one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies and as a novice Dominican nun. Joanna is a great narrator, so easy to like and to sympathise with as she struggles to reconcile all the different sides of her character: her faith and her religious beliefs, her loyalty to her friends and her powerful connections as a member of the Stafford family. As she learns more about the prophecy and the international plot surrounding it, she has some difficult choices to make. How should she interpret what she has heard? And once she has listened to the prophecy is it her responsibility to ensure it is fulfilled whatever the cost?
Because Joanna is a Stafford and the niece of the late Duke of Buckingham, it’s believable that despite the life she has tried to choose for herself, she will inevitably come into contact with rich and powerful people, both close to the King and in opposition to him. In these dangerous times, filled with political intrigue and rebellion, Joanna (and the reader) is never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted, and this adds a lot of drama and suspense to Joanna’s story. Among the real historical people she encounters are her cousins Henry and Gertrude Courtenay (the Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter), the young Catherine Howard, and her old adversary Stephen Gardiner. She also meets the nun and prophet Sister Elizabeth Barton and a few other fascinating historical figures who I won’t name here so as not to spoil the surprise.
Joanna’s two love interests from The Crown are back again too – the former friar, Brother Edmund Somerville, and the constable, Geoffrey Scovill – and her relationships with both of these men are developed further in this book. I do enjoy Joanna’s interactions with Edmund and Geoffrey, who are both great characters, but the romantic aspect of the book never becomes too dominant and is well balanced by the mystery/thriller aspects.
Another area in which I think Nancy Bilyeau really excels is in the way she captures the atmosphere of Tudor England, with all its sights, sounds and smells. She also does a good job of portraying the political and religious tensions of the period, especially what it was like for the nuns and monks whose religious houses had been destroyed or closed down and who were now facing the difficulties of either building a new life for themselves or secretly trying to continue to lead their religious lives in any way they can.
I did find this book a bit confusing at first because unlike the previous book, in which Joanna’s mission was clear – to search for the legendary crown of Athelstan – this time I found it harder to follow what was happening and exactly what Joanna was expected to do. Once I got into the story, though, and the plot began to take shape, it had all the excitement and the page turning qualities I remembered from The Crown. I hope there will be more Joanna Stafford books, but if not I will still be looking forward to any future novels from Nancy Bilyeau.
I am the first stop on this blog tour – for more reviews, interviews, guest posts and giveaways see the tour schedule.