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by Nancy Bilyeau
Touchstone, March 2013
482 pages
ISBN: 1476708657

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The sequel to THE CROWN in a planned series following the life and adventures of Joanna Stafford, THE CHALICE picks up the story in the autumn of 1528 as 17-year-old Joanna is being taken to Canterbury to be treated for a persistent melancholy but is tricked by her Spanish mother into visiting a nun, Sister Elizabeth Barton, who is known for her ability to prophesy the future. Here she learns a piece of the prophecy and is told that if Sister Elizabeth cannot succeed in what she has to do, Joanna will need to find two additional seers to learn the other parts of what she has been chosen to do.

The novel shifts forward ten years and we find Joanna now on her own because her life in the priory has abruptly ended with Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and religious houses of England. In this time of constant danger, especially for Catholics, Joanna must find a way to support herself and the small child she has been given to care for, the orphaned son of a woman burned at the stake for treason. Because of the Stafford family's close relationship to the noble houses of England, Joanna is sought out by those who would pressure her to help in the fight to restore Catholicism and to subvert the king's efforts to destroy it. Some of these people are arrested. Some are summarily executed. Some of her friends betray her. Some of her friends disappear. Her resistance to believing in or acting upon the prophesies about her is attacked by powerful forces representing the Emperor Charles who with François, King of France, has been urged by the Pope to invade England and depose the now excommunicated King Henry. Often forced by these powerful people by their threats to harm her or her friends, Joanna stumbles further and further into a world of intrigue that she wants only to flee.

The plot of this novel is chaotically convoluted as is Joanna Stafford's resolve, flinging her from terrified obedience to open rebellion, from chaste Bride of Christ to confused desire for first one good man and then another. In another novel this chaos would be a detriment, but in THE CHALICE it serves as a backdrop -- the constant situation, the constant motivation, the constant anguish. Henry VIII's rule mushrooms quickly into a reign of terror, the king himself plunged into a pit of self-absorbed anger coupled with absolute power. This perversion of what might have become one of England's greatest rulers destroys the capacity of all but the most determined martyrs from holding to their own inner values. It becomes simply a time in which no one at all can be trusted and everyday life is laced with horror. Bilyeau paints this picture very, very well.

§ Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, March 2013

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