Joanna Stafford, former novice, has escaped the Tower of London while so many others have gone on to torture, beheading, and burning at the stake, all at the hands of King Henry VIII. The year is 1538 and Joanna is trying to adjust to the life of a common woman, a difficult task given her noble background, all of which readers may have encountered in the prequel to this novel, The Crown: A Novel. Having heard two prophecies about her role in the supposed downfall of the King, she wants no more knowledge as death has stalked everyone who is connected to her.
As the King is destroying more monasteries and carrying out the Reformation through Thomas Cromwell, Joanna now learns that others are conniving to have European leaders attack England in order to restore the Catholic faith Henry has so thoroughly worked at stamping out. Meanwhile, two men love Joanna and the course of these potential romances is a lovely and frightening one indeed. For Joanna is not trusted and spies watch her every move, while others are using everything in their power to get her to agree to hear the third and final prophecy. This is the story of temptation in so many ways, with Joanna experiencing physical desire at the same time she knows horror of what the future could bring.
For now Joanna is developing her talent as a seamstress, designing tapestries that awe all who see them. Suddenly, her quiet life is shattered and after many fruitless arguments, she agrees to finish the task that seems to be divinely inspired. She will travel to Belgium, be held prisoner when she once again refuses to cooperate with the powers that totally oppose the King, and then meet a famous seer who has just been accused of being a converso by the notorious Inquisition. Finally, a revelation will clarify what she has struggled with for years upon years and she will embrace her task with faith. Will she succeed? How will England fare with so much division rife throughout the country and other nations?
Nancy Bilyeau is a very talented writer who has spun a brilliant work of historical fiction, as well as a tense plot replete with complex, dynamic characters. Obviously well-researched, The Chalice immediately draws the reader into the story, urging support and opposition at all the right places, crafting complexity to several riddles within the account, and inserting just enough levity and love to balance out the "humanity" of all the characters. For motivations and outcomes do not always exist as pure and simple as one would want but follow the complexity of the times in which this story takes place.
The Chalice: A Novel is finely crafted historical fiction. It, as well as its prequel, deserves the status of "classic historical fiction." Congratulations, Nancy Bilyeau on an amazing, enjoyable and noteworthy series!