Those who enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau’s debut historical novel The Crown will find its sequel The Chalice even more heart-wrenching and suspenseful. Once again we follow the adventures of former Dominican novice Joanna Stafford as she is torn from her peaceful country life and thrust into the maelstrom of Tudor-era intrigue. Having survived the dissolution of the monasteries, Joanna is trying to start a tapestry business in order to earn her living, when suddenly her wealthy and prominent Courtenay cousins arrive in town. They take her to stay with them in their mysterious old house in London where Joanna soon discovers that people and situations are not always what they seem. To her great discomfiture, it is revealed to Joanna that she is the key figure in a prophecy, a prophecy which pursues her wherever she goes. In the meantime, she struggles to keep her Catholic faith in a hostile environment, as well as deal with temptations of the flesh.
It is not always clear to me what Joanna’s canonical status is, whether she was a novice or professed nun in temporary vows. Since she is referred to as a novice and yet there is also mention of her vows, I assume she has made her first profession. At any rate, this confusion reflects Joanna’s own turmoil and uncertainty at being taken from her monastery and cut off from legitimate church authority. She is also torn in her affections for two very different young men. The interior struggles of Joanna amid the exterior hostilities and dangers make for a bitter mystical chalice from which she must drink. Joanna, like many in England at the time, are drawn into their own Gethsemane where, in an imperfect but sincere way, they are called to imitate Christ in His Agony. Joanna strives to be a faithful Catholic in spite of what is going on around her, and is shown spending time in prayer. I must say, having once had to leave a cloistered monastery novitiate when I was the around the same age as Joanna, I find her reactions to be extremely authentic for her circumstances.
The times described in The Chalice parallel our own in many ways, not only with the confusion in religious belief and practice but also the penchant for the occult. Now in the sixteenth century, what we now consider to be science overlapped a great deal with what we now consider to be arcane. For instance, astrology was seen as being part of astronomy, and was not necessarily a means of divination but rather part of understanding the workings of the natural order. There were also all kinds of false mystics and professional mediums. There is a scene where Joanna is taken against her will to see some kind of a creepy fortuneteller in a dangerous part of town, and we are made to feel her horror and disgust at having anything at all to do with the dark forces.
Along with Joanna and her friends, there are a colorful assortment of characters in The Chalice, people whom Joanna meets in the course of her adventures. I think the author did a superb job in creating well-rounded and complex personalities, all of whom have their weaknesses and strengths. The various settings add to the changing complexion of the story, whether it be a country village in England or a prison in Flanders. Both fast-paced adventure and morality tale, The Chalice is a page-turner with the courage to explore spiritual and moral issues from the point of view of an impetuous but pious young lady.
(*NOTE: This book was sent to me by the author’s representative in exchange for my honest opinion.)