Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice
By: Nancy Bilyeau
Publisher: Touchstone
ISBN: 978-1-4767-0865-2


With the dissolution of Dartford Priory (detailed in Bilyeau's previous novel, The Crown), erstwhile novice Joanna Stafford is left reeling, stripped of her livelihood and calling in one devastating blow. With the Catholic Church out of favor, Joanna and her fellow sisters -- including the apothecary Brother Edmund -- live as veritable outcasts in the town of Dartford, shunned by those seeking to ride the ever-changing wave of the king's views on faith and the church. Determined to never again become a pawn in the schemes of powerful men like the wily Bishop Gardiner, Joanna seizes the chance to re-take control of her once well-ordered life. She makes plans to start a tapestry business, determined to stay true to the precepts of her beloved religious order in both word and deed. But this daughter of nobility is haunted by everything she's lost, and the eerie remembrance of a seer's promise that her life possesses a purpose inexorably entwined with everything she's learned to hate and fear -- the court and those in it determined to advance their own agenda, no matter how dangerous or destructive.

When her cousin Henry Courtenay, the powerful Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Gertrude appear in Dartford, begging Joanna for a visit, she agrees, little dreaming that by allying herself with the Courtenays she draws ever closer to the epicenter of a plot determined to bring Henry VIII to his knees and restore the true Catholic faith to England. Although Joanna assiduously strives to bury the horrific memory of disgraced and executed Sister Elizabeth Barton's claim that she is inextricably tied to the very future of England, Gertrude becomes obsessed with Joanna's alleged prophetic role in restoring England as a Catholic nation or risking Henry -- now on the hunt for his fourth wife -- securing reformist rule with the birth of a second prince. Grieving the once-bright promise of her lost life at Dartford Priory, Joanna is tempted to agree -- but fears the repercussions of associating herself with those who dabble in forbidden sorcery. Caught up in an intricate web engineered by power-hungry foreign kings, Joanna finds herself at a crossroads -- accept the prophecy and become its pawn, or embrace the uncertainty of her future and follow the dictates of her conscience, no matter the cost. And on her decision and resolve rests no less than the future of a nation and the very life of its king...

The Chalice was tasked with following an amazing predecessor, as The Crown is one of the best books I've read this year and one of the best debuts I've read, ever. And on balance, Bilyeau's sophomore offering delivers. She continues to illuminate lesser-known corners of Tudor England's history -- as through Joanna's eyes, we stand witness to the utter devastation that comes from the destruction of an entire way of life built on a faith and its practices centuries old. Where in The Crown Joanna's priory was still intact, and as a result the events of her search for the legendary Athelstan crown felt relatively contained, in The Chalice the protective boundaries surrounding Joanna's life have been stripped away, leaving her more vulnerable than ever to the pull of the aristocratic life she had once forsworn.

I'm left with mixed feelings about Joanna's character arc following this installment. Where her initial introduction showcased a vibrant, determined, intelligent woman of faith, here Joanna is anchor-less and understandably angry -- an anger that oft-times blinds her to sound advice, leaving her vulnerable to the negative affects of foolish, willful pride. While Bilyeau does an excellent job articulating Joanna's completely understandable grief, anger, and frustration at being forced to make a life for herself without the guidance of the conviction and rule of a monastic life, I wish it had been balanced with a bit more of the savvy survival skills she exhibits while still a novice. Her repeated rejection of help, familial or otherwise, particularly when offered by the (utterly irresistible) Geoffrey Scovill was grating at best and infuriating at worst. But while Joanna may have been maddening, the delicious, unrequited tension Geoffrey possesses for her -- and her maddening denial of the same -- powerfully speaks to Bilyeau's ability to pen fiery, memorable characters.

The Chalice is saturated with the history of the time period, gracefully illuminating the tension between the Catholic "old guard" and the heady pull of reform faith. Neither side is perfect or blameless, and Bilyeau does a masterful job of articulating the passionately held beliefs on each side of the religious schism threatening to split England in two. Joanna's second "quest" is every bit as fascinating and historically detailed as her first, but lacks some of the focus and intensity that characterized her search for the Athelstan crown. While Joanna's attempts to understand the prophecy that has haunted her life makes for compelling reading, it isn't until the novel's final act that the role of the chalice is revealed. The premise, particularly in how it is tied to Henry's unhappy union with Anne of Cleves, is a fascinating one, and the perfect illustration of Bilyeau's mastery in weaving fact and fiction. I just wish there had been some way to balance the mystery of the prophecies with the intrigue and political machinations surrounding Henry's fourth marriage.

Though The Chalice didn't have quite the level of finesse present in its sterling predecessor, it is nonetheless a worthy follow-up to Joanna and her search to find place and fulfillment in a world that, by her standards, has gone mad. A slow-burning thriller rich in atmosphere and historical detail, Bilyeau has a gift for bringing the attitudes and mores of the time period to vibrant life. Joanna's world is peppered with characters both fascinating and maddening in turns, but always sharply realized on the page. Joanna and her dangerous dance between forces both secular and religious is an intoxicating formula. Coupled with Bilyeau's sterling research and undeniable affinity for the time period, The Chalice is a satisfying entry in Joanna's life that leaves me more anxious than ever for the next glimpse -- its sequel (and with it, hopefully more page time for the heartbreaking Geoffrey!) cannot come quickly enough!

About the book:

In the midst of England’s Reformation, a young novice will risk everything to defy the most powerful men of her era.

In 1538, England’s bloody power struggle between crown and cross threatens to tear the country apart. Novice Joanna Stafford has tasted the wrath of the royal court, discovered what lies within the king’s torture rooms, and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic.

Even with all she has experienced, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Despite the possibilities of arrest and imprisonment, she becomes caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna realizes her role is more critical than she’d ever imagined. She must choose between those she loves most and assuming her part in a prophecy foretold by three seers. Repelled by violence, Joanna seizes a future with a man who loves her. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny.

To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with a corrupt spy sent by Spain. As she completes the puzzle in the dungeon of a twelfth-century Belgian fortress, Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lies at the center of these deadly prophecies. . . .

*Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the review opportunity, and my apologies for being so late with my scheduled post! Click here to read my review of Bilyeau's debut, The Crown.

Made to Last by Melissa Tagg

This week, the

is introducing

Bethany House Publishers (September 15, 2013)



A Word From The Author:

I’m a former reporter turned author who loves all things funny and romancey. My debut novel, a romantic comedy titled Made to Last, releases from Bethany House in September 2013. In addition to my nonprofit day job, I’m also the marketing/events coordinator for My Book Therapy, a craft and coaching community for novelists.

It all started when my dad, at the ripe old age of sixteen, picked up my mom up for their first date. She was thirteen. Thirteen!* Dad drove a cherry red car up the lane to my grandparents big ol’ green house and honked his horn…whereupon Mom jumped out of the apple tree she’d been waiting in and off they went…fishing. True story. (I’d give more details, but I’m saving it for a novella I plan to entitle Two Leaves. Mom, I really hope you read this.)

Four years of college, a few trips abroad and a stint as a reporter later, that dream is soon to be a reality. My debut novel, a romantic comedy titled Made to Last, is now out from Bethany House. Book two, Here to Stay, comes out on May 1, 2014.

In between writing and staring out the window brainstorming, I also work as a grant-writer at one of Iowa’s largest private nonprofits and serve as the marketing/events coordinator for My Book Therapy, a craft and coaching community for novelists founded by Susan May Warren.

And I love, love, love talking about finding our purpose and identity in Christ. (And well, okay, food, old movies, boots and scarves, my awesome nephew Ollie, and, fine, Tim Tebow, too.)


Miranda Woodruff has it all. At least, that's how it looks when she's starring in her homebuilding television show, From the Ground Up. So when her network begins to talk about making cuts, she'll do anything to boost ratings and save her show--even if it means pretending to be married to a man who's definitely not the fiance who ran out on her three years ago.

When a handsome reporter starts shadowing Miranda's every move, all his digging into her personal life brings him a little too close to the truth--and to her. Can the girl whose entire identity is wrapped up in her on-screen persona finally find the nerve to set the record straight? And if she does, will the life she's built come crashing down just as she's found a love to last?

If you'd like to read the first chapter of Made to Last, go HERE.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: Aquifer by Jonathan Friesen

By: Jonathan Friesen
Publisher: Blink


The Earth of the future is a wasteland. The once precious liquid that sustained life -- fresh water -- has vanished, leaving only its salty counterpart in its stead and a people struggling to eke out a meager existence on the dusty wastelands that once teemed with life. Fresh water is only available from one source, the Aquifer, and once a year the Toppers send their Deliverer into the bowels of the Earth to broker a deal with the fearsome Water Rats who control the Aquifer for a year's supply. Luca is the son of Father Massa, the current Deliverer, the path to salvation stamped indelibly on his psyche since childhood. In a world that demands conformity and employs fearsome Amongus, watchmen tasked with stamping out any hint of individuality or emotion. At sixteen and on the cusp of adulthood, Luca begins to question everything he's been taught, and finds himself drawn to the forbidden -- bursts of emotion, rumors of scratchings (i.e., books) that once set the world on fire. When his father disappears on his yearly water pilgrimage, the responsibilities of Deliverer fall to Luca -- a weight he's unsure whether or not he's capable of carrying thanks to the newly-formed questions and doubts filling his once-ordered life with tumult. With the help of Seward, a wily pirate, Luca goes rogue in an attempt to discover the truth of the Aquifer and his calling -- a truth with the power to destroy the fabric of Luca's society, or set two worlds free forever.

Aquifer came on my radar when the new Blink imprint from Zondervan was announced earlier this year. With a goal of publishing YA fiction that would appeal to both faith-based and general-market readers (regarding the former, those certainly tap into both markets in my experience), I was eager to explore the types of titles this imprint brings to the market. Aquifer promises a dystopian adventure in the vein of The Hunger Games and other novels of that ilk -- a world at once both familiar and strange, where an item that supports the very fabric of life, so often taken for granted, becomes scarce, the pivot on which the very future of society depends.

Friesen's New Pert, Austrayla, is the epicenter of activity, the social hub whose survival depends on a steady supply of water from the Aquifer. I loved the dystopian Australian setting, as it frankly isn't one often seen in fiction in my experience -- and as it is surrounded by salt water, its very setting adds to the sense of isolation and imminent peril facing Luca and his people. Of the characters, Luca is the most well-drawn, but while that is to be expected given his status as the novel's hero-in-training, it's frustrating when to the relatively colorless by comparison supporting players -- those for whom Luca has been trained from birth with the understanding that he is in many respects as their "savior" and defacto leader (albeit a relatively powerless one thanks to the Amongus).

While Aquifer isn't a Christian novel per se, it definitely seems informed by a biblical worldview, and that aspect of the storyline is both its greatest strength and its most maddening quality. Luca first encounters faith when he meets the Wishers, whose faith in an unseen power and ability to avoid the Amongus' power to detect unsettling, emotional "wrinkles" intrigues him, thus priming him for the realization that there is more to living than the strictly proscribed boundaries in which he exists. However, the novel sets Luca up as a Christ-figure (the historical implications of naming his father "Massa" are also somewhat troubling, as if Luca is the savior then his father is a god to the people, though powerless), without an alternative, without fully exploring what or who it is calling on Luca to live a radical life, to embrace truths so wild they are capable of sparking revolution.

Although hampered by a sluggish start, Aquifer contains a refreshing (no water-related pun intended) premise whose biggest drawback is, perhaps, a lack of depth. While Luca is a competently-realized hero, he is surrounded on the whole by frustratingly one-dimensional characters (particularly Luca's "love" interest), very literally sheep without a shepherd -- and if that was the intent, the allegorical content of the storyline veers into extraordinarily heavy-handed territory, which does a disservice to an otherwise potentially interesting premise. With a greater focus on world-building and supporting character development, subsequent installments exploring Luca's heroic journey and attempts to revitalize a faith-starved world hold promise. Aquifer is in many respects an uneven effort, but it is ultimately a thought-provoking read that's left me curious for Friesen's (and this new imprint's) future work.

About the book:

Only He Can Bring What They Needed to Survive.

In 2250, water is scarce, and those who control it control everything. And they'll do anything to maintain their power---deceiving, dividing families, banning love ... even killing those who oppose them. But above all, they seek to control knowledge and communication---ensuring the truth that will bring their downfall will never be known.

But one person verges on discovering it all. Sixteen-year-old Luca becomes the Deliverer, the only one allowed to contact the people called 'Water Rats,' who mine the essential water deep underground and bring it to the 'Toppers' who desperately need it above. But when he meets a Water Rat who captures his heart and leads him to secrets---secrets about a vast conspiracy, and about himself---the net around him tightens. Luca and those around him must uncover and share the truth needed to overthrow tyranny---even as they fight for their lives.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Born of Persuasion by Jessica Dotta

This week, the

Christian Fiction Blog Alliance

is introducing

Born of Persuasion

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (September 1, 2013)

Jessica Dotta


Born in the wrong century–except for the fact that she really likes epidurals and washing machines–Jessica Dotta writes British Historicals with the humor like an Austen, yet the drama of a Bronte.

She resides lives in the greater Nashville area—where she imagines her small Southern town into the foggy streets of 19th century London. She oversees her daughter to school, which they pretend is an English boarding school, and then she goes home to write and work on PR. Jessica has tried to cast her dachshund as their butler–but the dog insists it’s a Time Lord and their home a Tardis. Miss Marple, her cat, says its no mystery to her as to why the dog won’t cooperate. When asked about it, Jessica sighs and says that you can’t win them all, and at least her dog has picked something British to emulate.


The year is 1838, and seventeen-year-old Julia Elliston’s position has never been more fragile. Orphaned and unmarried in a time when women are legal property of their fathers, husbands, and guardians, she finds herself at the mercy of an anonymous guardian who plans to establish her as a servant in far-off Scotland.

With two months to devise a better plan, Julia’s first choice to marry her childhood sweetheart is denied. But when a titled dowager offers to introduce Julia into society, a realm of possibilities opens. However, treachery and deception are as much a part of Victorian society as titles and decorum, and Julia quickly discovers her present is deeply entangled with her mother’s mysterious past. Before she knows what’s happening, Julia finds herself a pawn in a deadly game between two of the country’s most powerful men. With no laws to protect her, she must unravel the secrets on her own. But sometimes truth is elusive and knowledge is deadly.

If you would like to read the first chapter of Born of Persuasion, go HERE.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Poster!

The official poster for the upcoming fiftieth anniversary Doctor Who special has been released, and it is GORGEOUS. I just have one thing to say -- how soon can November get here? *wink*