The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Since reading the Joanna Stafford trilogy (The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry) a few years ago, I’ve been waiting and hoping for a new book from Nancy Bilyeau and here it is at last: The Blue. Bilyeau wrote so convincingly about Tudor England in the Joanna Stafford books that I was surprised to find she was switching to an entirely different period for this latest novel – the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763, a war which involved most of Europe, with Britain and France on opposite sides. Set against this backdrop, The Blue is an exciting, thrilling tale of espionage, art, religious persecution – and the race to create a new and beautiful shade of blue.

Our heroine, Genevieve Planché, is a young Huguenot woman whose family fled France when it became impossible for them to openly practise their religion. Despite her French ancestry, Genevieve has grown up in London among the silk weavers of Spitalfields and considers herself to be English, viewing the French king as someone to be feared. As a talented artist, she longs to have the chance to study painting and develop her skills, but as a woman she discovers that most of the opportunities open to men are closed to her. Her grandfather has made plans for her to go to a porcelain manufactory in Derby where she can paint pretty designs on plates and vases, but that’s not what Genevieve wants out of life. Then, just as she’s losing hope, she meets Sir Gabriel Courtenay at a party and receives a very tempting offer…

Sir Gabriel urges her to take up the position she has been offered at the Derby Porcelain Works and track down their chemist who is working on the development of a new colour blue. If Genevieve can steal the formula for blue and pass it to Sir Gabriel, he will help her travel to Venice where, he tells her, she will be taken seriously as a female artist. Genevieve is quick to agree, but once she is in Derby and the true scale of her mission becomes apparent, she begins to have doubts. Why is Sir Gabriel so desperate for the blue? What is the colour’s significance? And what will happen if she is caught?

The Blue is a fascinating novel – I learned so much about the production and decoration of porcelain, the meanings of different colours, and the ways in which art and science can combine to create things of beauty – but it is also a gripping and suspenseful historical thriller. One of the things I enjoyed most about the story was that it was so difficult to decide who could and could not be trusted. From the young woman Genevieve shares a room with at the Porcelain Works to Sir Gabriel himself, she has no idea who is on her side and who is likely to betray her. Although she sometimes makes silly mistakes, that is to be expected when she is faced with trying to navigate her way through so many dangerous situations!

This is the first book I have read via The Pigeonhole, a website/app which makes books available in daily instalments (referred to as ‘staves’). Each stave ended on a cliffhanger which left me desperate to get back to the story the following morning and reading it over a period of ten days was a wonderful experience. The book is written in present tense, something I usually find off-putting, but it seemed to work much better in the serialised format because it helped me to feel closer to Genevieve, almost as if I was sharing in her adventures as they happened.

I would love to read a sequel to The Blue, but if that doesn’t happen then I will look forward to whatever Nancy Bilyeau chooses to write about next.

Thanks to The Pigeonhole and Endeavour Quill for the opportunity to read this novel.

The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau (with giveaway)

The Tapestry The Tapestry is the third book in Nancy Bilyeau’s wonderful Joanna Stafford trilogy, which is set in Tudor England and follows the adventures of a former Dominican novice whose life has been torn apart with the dissolution of the monasteries. I loved both of the previous books in the series – The Crown and The Chalice – and had been looking forward to reading this one for more than two years. I’m pleased to be able to say that it was worth the wait!

When we first met Joanna Stafford in The Crown, she was Sister Joanna, a novice nun at Dartford Priory. With the priory under threat of closure by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Joanna became embroiled in a quest to find the legendary crown of Athelstan. Then, in The Chalice, she learned of her role in a mysterious prophecy and found herself caught up in another dangerous plot. As The Tapestry begins, Joanna is hoping to avoid any more involvement in quests and conspiracies. All she wants to do is settle down to a peaceful life in Dartford, weaving her tapestries and caring for her cousin’s little boy, Arthur. Unfortunately, people more powerful than herself have other plans for Joanna…

It seems that Joanna’s tapestries have come to the attention of King Henry VIII, who summons her to Whitehall Palace with a special commission. Almost as soon as she arrives at court, however, she discovers that her life is still in danger. Someone in the palace is spying on her – but who and why? Meanwhile, Joanna’s close friend Catherine Howard has also come to court and it is thought that the King is about to make her his fifth wife. Remembering the fates of Henry’s previous wives, Joanna is determined to do whatever she can to protect her friend as well as herself.

Like the first two Joanna Stafford novels, this is an exciting and compelling story. There are so many books set in the Tudor period that it must be difficult to find a new way to approach the subject, but this is exactly what Nancy Bilyeau has done here. I would describe these books as historical thrillers, as they are not exactly mysteries in the traditional sense – although they do all have an element of mystery in them, in this case the question of who is trying to harm Joanna. What really makes them stand out for me is Joanna herself; she’s such an interesting character, being both a former nun and also a member of the Stafford family – a niece of the late Duke of Buckingham and therefore related to the King himself.

As usual, the historical background has been well researched and some of the important events of the period are incorporated into the story, including Henry VIII’s fourth and fifth marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, and the downfall of Thomas Cromwell. We get some insights into what is going on elsewhere in Europe too, first through the character of the artist Hans Holbein who befriends Joanna at Whitehall, and later when Joanna embarks on a journey across Germany, a land badly affected by famine and unrest.

The Tapestry is not a romance, but there are two men who have been possible love interests for Joanna since book one – the former Dominican friar and apothecary Edmund Sommerville and constable Geoffrey Scovill. I have enjoyed watching Joanna’s relationships with both Edmund and Geoffrey develop throughout the three novels and in this final book Joanna has an important choice to make which will bring this thread of the series to a conclusion.

If you’re new to these books I would recommend reading The Crown and then The Chalice before you pick up The Tapestry; that way you’ll be able to follow Joanna’s story from the beginning. I have loved the whole trilogy and am sorry to have reached the end of Joanna’s adventures now, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Nancy Bilyeau writes next!

The Tapestry: US Publication Date: March 24 2015; UK Publication Date: April 24 2015

The Tapestry blog tour

I read The Tapestry as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. Please see the tour schedule for details of more reviews, interviews and guest posts.

Giveaway

Now here’s your chance to win one of three signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry.

You can enter the giveaway here: https://gleam.io/iyF4a/the-tapestry

Rules:
Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01am EST and ends at 11:59pm EST on April 3rd.
Giveaway is open to residents in North America and the UK.
You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour: The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice 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.

The Chalice Tour Banner FINAL

I am the first stop on this blog tour – for more reviews, interviews, guest posts and giveaways see the tour schedule.

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s first novel, The Crown, is a historical mystery set during the Tudor period, beginning just before the death of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour. The story revolves around the search for a legendary crown which is said to possess special powers. Our heroine and narrator is Joanna Stafford, niece of the third Duke of Buckingham, and a novice nun at Dartford Priory.

When Sister Joanna escapes from the priory and travels to London to witness the execution of her cousin for treason she is unfortunate enough to be captured and taken to the Tower of London. Here she is visited by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who sends her back to Dartford on a mission to find the mysterious Athelstan crown which he believes could be hidden somewhere within the priory. As Joanna learns more about the crown she starts to wonder why the Bishop wants it so desperately, but with her beloved father also imprisoned in the Tower and threatened with torture, it seems she has no choice but to obey Gardiner’s orders…

This was one of the most entertaining Tudor novels I’ve read and a real page turner from beginning to end. When the search for the Athelstan crown began I was concerned it might become too much like The Da Vinci Code but that didn’t happen. The mystery of the hidden relic was an important part of the story, but not at the expense of the character development or the wonderful sense of time and place that the author creates.

I really liked Joanna Stafford. One of the things that makes her such an interesting narrator is the constant conflict between her commitment to the vows she’s required to take as a nun and her desire to do whatever is necessary to help her father, even if it means breaking some of these vows. The fact that she sometimes struggles with her conscience and doesn’t always make the right decisions helped me to believe in her as a character.

As a member of one of England’s most powerful families, Joanna meets a lot of famous names from the period including Katherine of Aragon, Anne and George Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Princess Mary, but unlike a lot of Tudor novels this one doesn’t really focus on the court. Instead we are given lots of details on life in a priory and what it was like to be a nun during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when on the orders of Henry VIII the religious houses of England, Wales and Ireland were closed down, destroyed or sold. This is not something I knew much about before starting this book and I had no idea what happened to the monks and nuns after the monasteries were dissolved, so it was good to learn more about the process and what it involved. But although there’s plenty of history here, it really serves as a background to the plot and never slows the story down at all, so I think this book could be enjoyed by people who like thrillers and mystery novels as well as by fans of historical fiction.

The Crown is a complete story in itself, but the way it ended left me feeling that there were more adventures ahead for Joanna. Apparently Nancy Bilyeau has written a sequel and I’m already looking forward to reading it and entering Joanna’s world again.

I received a copy of The Crown through Netgalley