July 2014
S M T W T F S
« Jun    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Review: Hild, Nicola Griffith

hildSeventh century Britain is a harsh world, comprised of petty kings and their domains, haunted by the frequent spectre of war. Little Hild is born into this world as the daughter of a prince, her mother prophesying before her birth that she will be the light of the world. But Hild’s father dies when she is only a child, throwing her world into uncertainty. Her mother, and then she, schemes to keep their rightful place, and Hild becomes a seer for her uncle, King of Northumbria. Not only does she have to handle difficult and uneasy politics, but she also has to deal with the regular struggles of any young girl growing into a woman.

The author for this book has done a lot of research into the period and it shows. She freely admits that she’s completely made up the vast majority of Hild’s story – it is fiction, after all – but the surroundings and the life that Hild lives are entirely possible for a girl in seventh century Britain. She is the seer of just one petty king in a Britain full of them. They each hold one piece of what is now a whole, but that is not treated as a foregone conclusion in the slightest. I liked reading about some of the smaller kingdoms, including Alt Clud, which was actually in Vanished Kingdoms, a book I found incredibly interesting nearly a year ago, about kingdoms and provinces in Europe that have since been forgotten.

As for Hild, all this means is that she has to keep Edwin’s favor but at the same time weigh what might happen if one of the other kings surge in power and she’s no stranger to battle. Because she is a seer, and not just the king’s niece, she has to endure a huge amount of danger and uncertainty.

At the same time, though, Hild is very clearly a teenage girl, and even though the world she lives in doesn’t at all resemble our own, she’s easy to relate to. This book really spans her childhood, from when she can’t even speak to the moment when she becomes a woman and in charge of her own destiny – at least, as much as she possibly could be. She grows and we understand where she’s come from and where she thinks she’s going, even when she’s not sure.

This book’s storyline spans the conversion of Christianity, which I found fascinating. The bishop, Paulinus, is a missionary and it’s his job to convert Hild’s people. The king in Kent is of course the first to be converted and then Christianity spreads across the island. The book thus has to deal with the reconciliation of pagan beliefs with Christianity; how to get these people to decide to be baptised and then how to compromise in order to keep them Christian. Hild doesn’t stop being the king’s seer even when she has to be baptised. She remarks with surprise at the time that she hasn’t burned and she’s still herself and her visions are given just as much credence as they were before. She still fits, even though the world around her is changing and adapting.

I read Hild slowly – it’s not a fast read – but it’s a book worth spending time with. Hild’s world is very unlike our own and it takes some getting used to, but the reward is an intricate, cleverly written story and a worthy heroine as its star. Recommended, especially for those who already enjoy historical fiction.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

fangirlCather Avery would have been perfectly content to stay at home with her dad and twin sister, Wren, and write fanfiction about Simon Snow for the foreseeable future. If she has to go to college, which of course she does, she’d at least have preferred to live with her sister, as she has for the first eighteen years of her life. But instead, both twins go to college, and Wren chooses to live with someone else – leaving Cath to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life. Cath can’t deal with her roommate or her roommate’s adorable boyfriend, Levi; she can’t seem to find enough time to write the fanfiction that she loves so much and she’s afraid to leave it behind to write fiction separate from that world; she can’t stop worrying about her dad, coping alone in the world without his two daughters for the first time. Can she find a place for herself in the world outside the bubble she’s created for herself?

Rainbow Rowell’s books make me want to write about them immediately. I loved Eleanor and Park late last year (how has it been that long?) and it was only a matter of time before I found myself starting FangirlOf course, I am a “fangirl” myself, which explains part of the attraction. I spent most of my teenage years hanging out on Final Fantasy forums and have tried my hand at writing fanfiction more than once. I have had plenty of friends who have done the exact same thing. Like Cath, too, I’m shy and socially inept (at least in my own head). Starting college with literally no one I knew anywhere was hard and scary, and while I didn’t hide in my room like Cath, I certainly wanted to until I found my eventual, amazing friends who made that time incredible.

What I’m trying to say with the above paragraph is that I massively related to this book, to Cath, and I felt like I could get more inside her head than with most other fictional characters. I normally don’t like books that are too close to my own possible life experience, but I related and I wanted better for her. And I loved Levi, the boy who gives smiles away like it doesn’t cost him anything. I loved them together, I loved that everything was behind closed doors but so, so charged with tension. Rowell is absolutely brilliant at this – who can forget how emotional she makes hand-holding in Eleanor and Park – and she puts her talents to good use in this book, too.

On top of the wonderful relationship she’s got starting with Levi, Cath relates to everyone and cares so much. Her conversations with Reagan had me laughing, frequently, and her constant care for and worry about her father and sister make her a good person. It doesn’t matter what else is happening at any given moment, if someone she loves needs her, Cath will go there and be with them. Everyone has lessons to learn in this book, but Cath doesn’t need to learn how to love. She’s so good at loving that it’s no wonder she worries people will take advantage of her, and she’s damaged from having that love essentially spurned. But even though she categorizes herself as broken, she’s not. She just needs to learn how to be whole again and this book is her wobbling and then learning to do just that.

I could quote so many passages that I loved, but instead I’ll link to this goodreads page. Every quote on there is golden. So often there would be a passage and I would think yes that it’s impossible to summarize all of them. I’d have to quote the entire book.

I read this book in the space of a single evening, forgoing sleep in favor of getting to the end; although there is no real suspense here, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a page that is so full of beautiful words and emotions and living. Rainbow Rowell is brilliant. I’m glad I already bought all of her books, because I’m certainly going to be reading all of them.

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselvesWhen she was a little girl, Rosemary was a chatterbox, happy to talk anyone’s ear off. Her mother told her to choose one of the two things she had to say; when that wasn’t enough, it became one in three. But by the time Rosemary is a college student, she hardly ever speaks, and she’s moved halfway across the country to avoid the gaps in her life. Her brother and her sister have been missing from her life for years and, even though she loved both of them, she’s been spending most of that time misunderstanding why they are gone. Eventually Rosemary can’t deny her past, but in order to unravel it, she begins in the middle with this book, where her father always told her to start stories, when telling the beginning would take too long.

I went into this book knowing almost nothing about it. I have probably mentioned it before, but this is the way that I enjoy books the most, because I don’t have any preconceived notions about what’s in them and I can come to the story in the way I imagine the author intended. That is almost certainly the case for this book, which is why I’ve tried very hard not to give anything away. The bit I’m keen to avoid talking about happens around page 70, so it isn’t as though it takes long – I just think it’s worth not knowing, avoiding preconceptions, before you realize what’s happened.

One of my favorite things in a book is an unreliable narrator, I think mainly because we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. Rosemary spends quite a bit of time in the book going back to the beginning, to her very early childhood, and often has to confront whether what she remembers is fact or fiction. Does she remember something or does she now only remember being told the story? How much do the facts of her life, as she sees them, line up with what her parents and siblings remember and experienced? I love books that start out in the middle and only gradually reveal what actually happened and what it meant. This is definitely one of those.

There’s also identity and how our family shapes it, by action, inaction, or by simple absence. Rosemary’s adult life is in many ways dictated by what her parents chose to do when she was a child, factors that she simply can’t escape, and maybe shouldn’t, no matter how far from them she tries to go. Though she’s writing this novel as an adult, it actually documents more the process of her coming to terms with this and understanding their actions as well as her own.

And, although all of this sounds very serious, and most of the book is serious and sad, there’s also a light touch. Some of it is genuinely funny, almost to relieve the tension of everything else. Fowler maintains a delicate balance between a book that is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking and one that is a pleasure to read.

The book is about so much more as well, but as I said above, I don’t really want to give it away. I just really want other people to read it so I can talk about it more. So I hope that, despite the “mystery”, others will feel the same way, and perhaps be inspired to pick We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves up. I would certainly recommend it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The Emperor's Blades, Brian Staveley

the emperor's bladesThe Emperor has been murdered, dead far before he planned to be. His heir, Kaden, is far away, learning to be a monk, not yet ready to take on the mantle of imperial rule. His second son, Valyn, is still in training to become one of the empire’s most deadly fighters. Only his daughter Adare is in the capital. Though her father has granted her the position of Minister of Finance, she still isn’t as powerful as either of her brothers could be, and must navigate the tricky waters of court politics while trying to bring her father’s murderer to justice. Meanwhile the lives of Kaden and Valyn are in danger and both brothers must confront their own problems before they can even begin to start on the empire’s.

This book, which is an ARC, makes the claim on the back that “fantasy has never been more popular”. While I’ve been a fan of fantasy for most of my life, I think I’d agree with its assertion. Game of Thrones has taken over the imagination of many people and, although I like the books a lot less than I once did, I like that it’s becoming less of a stigma to enjoy fantasy and science fiction. The Emperor’s Blades isn’t quite up to the standards of the masters who have gotten us this far, like Robin Hobb or George R.R. Martin, but is certainly a big step in the right direction for its author.

The narrative is balanced between the three children, although they are all mostly grown. I think Kaden and Valyn were given more page time than Adare, but I personally found Adare’s part of the story most interesting. She’s the one who actually has to figure out what is going on, while her brothers are more impacted by related events. And her part of the story had the one moment where I think my mouth actually gaped open in surprise, although both boys have interesting stories, too.

For me the book started off slowly. I no longer read much epic fantasy and I’ve found that this sometimes means I am a little slower on the uptake as I try to learn who each character is, what their backstory is, and how it all relates together. It really picks up in the second half though because all three characters start sensing that something is going on. Neither of the boys know their father is dead for a good portion of the beginning of the story, but both sense that something is wrong in the way that others behave and how events fall out. Once those events and conspiracies start to come together, everything ties in and gets much more exciting.

The magic system in the book is particularly interesting as well. Magic has a very strong stigma against it and those who practice it are called leaches, because they must leach their power from something in their environment. The magic itself is slippery and mainly seems to involve changing the environment just slightly, enough to throw enemies off balance but only sometimes to cause big, cataclysmic events. It’s an intriguing enough concept but wasn’t developed enough for me.

I did think the book was lacking in some areas. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t think Adare had enough page time; there is far more potential around exploring her story and I hope that Staveley lets her shine in the rest of the series. I also felt that the world-building was a bit weak and confusing; most of it seems to come about through telling, especially one particularly long diatribe to Kaden, because the main characters stay more or less in the same relatively boring places throughout the entire book. The capital, where Adare is located, had the most potential, but was again not really explored. Amazing world-building really adds an extra dimension onto a fantasy novel and it was missing here.

In any case, I did feel The Emperor’s Blades was a solid debut and, if the next volumes address some of the lacks in this one, has a lot of potential for a great series. I’ll be giving the next one a try.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims, Toby Clements

kingmakerIt’s 1460. Katherine is a young nun, caught outside her English priory by a group of rampaging knights during the Wars of the Roses. Her life is saved by a slightly older monk, Thomas, but her reputation isn’t. Not only has she spoken to a man, but her closest friend has died under suspicious circumstances, and Katherine finds herself expelled from the priory. Under related circumstances, so does Thomas, and these two young people find themselves with nothing and nowhere to go in the middle of a bloody civil war, fleeing from a knight whose mission is to kill them.

We’ve reached a bit of a saturation point with the Wars of the Roses, or at least I have. There are so very many books floating around about the Woodvilles, Richard III, Edward IV, the Princes in the Tower that it’s actually overwhelming, and no longer all that interesting in fiction. These royals have been considered from virtually every angle and it can seem like there isn’t anywhere new for fiction writers to go. Clements goes completely against that trend and focuses his novel on two ordinary people instead, who are simply caught up in what is wreaked by those who rule. In doing so, he creates something that is much more innovative and, ultimately, retains its interest in an over-saturated market.

In altering his focus, Clements allows us to take a completely different perspective on the war. Thomas and Katherine don’t really care who wins the war. They don’t even know what’s going on sometimes, though they do know the man who’s caused all of their troubles. They do their fair share of fighting and they even meet some of those figures about whom so many authors write. But this is a more personal struggle, viewed from a different level. They’re loyal to minor lords and it’s a member of the minor nobility who plagues them throughout the book. Everything else is more or less incidental, even though they travel across the Channel and back and feature in a few of the major battles fought during the war.

Both characters are sympathetic; I especially liked Katherine, but I wanted both of them to survive and thrive as best they could. Their personal struggles can easily strike a chord with readers; both have to find their way in a world outside the priory. They had assumed they would be there for their entire lives, but instead find themselves not only in a war but challenged with moral questions they never expected to encounter. The responsibility for killing people, the exposure to an outside world of sin, the fight for revenge; it’s very human.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims took me a while to read because it’s fairly long, but I enjoyed it, getting wrapped up in their struggles and experiencing a little more what the other side of the Wars of the Roses would have been like. Recommended.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review consideration.

Books I Haven’t Managed to Write About Yet

cinderI had a high and lofty goal of writing about everything I read this year, even if only a sentence, at the beginning of the year. I’ve failed at that, but here are a few thoughts on books I have read and think are worth talking about this year so far.

CinderScarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer

I loved these books. I went on a work trip to London and had to stay overnight back in February and I managed to read Cinder and Scarlet back-to-back on the evening (in between a trip to Forbidden Planet and a curry for dinner). I didn’t sleep much, needless to say, but I loved them. I got completely and totally absorbed in Cinder’s world. By a small stretch of time I managed to wait to read Cress - about a month – but my resistance wore down absurdly quickly and I devoured that one, too, although so far I think Cinder is my favorite. And now I have to wait all the way until 2015 for Winter, which seems pretty unendurable whenever I think about it!

It’s difficult to pin down why I loved them so very much. I really liked the way they reflected fairy tales, how they’re burdened by expectations and each girl has to make her own way, and because each book has a great romance going on (although I think Cress’s is probably the weakest) without being just about that romance. There is so much packed into each book, so much emotion and story. I even like how they reflect a wider scope of the world within fantasy and each girl comes from a different place and different walk of life. I so hope Winter is just as good as the first three books in this series.

germaniaGermania, Simon Winder

I didn’t really love Germania, but I appreciated it a lot, and it reminded me of why Germany is so interesting. Winder basically goes off on a long, rambling, nostalgic and affectionate rant about Germany and takes his readers along for the ride. So while it isn’t an organized history of much of anything, it has a whole lot of charm. Just the subject of Germany is complicated now, still, in the shadow of both World Wars. They fundamentally changed the way that Germany was perceived by the rest of the world, especially Europe, and Germany’s reputation hasn’t recovered in the way. Anecdotally, I’ve never met anyone obsessed with German culture, like people so frequently are with France or Italy, and German friends I have had do say that there is still shame pervading Germany because of what happened. But Germany was regarded completely differently before those wars in ways that it’s now difficult to imagine.

Winder agrees with this interpretation. Germany is kind of disregarded now, certainly compared to its European neighbors, but it’s an enchanting country with a bizarre history, so fractured into tiny little pieces that still hold on to their own eclectic pasts. I felt a fragment of this when I went to Munich almost two years ago; I had never really heard of any of the people or places around Munich, but there are royal palaces and paintings and little bits of history all over the place. I wanted to know more, but it feels like learning more about Germany is unravelling a massive swath of history that has the potential to be overwhelming. I’ve picked up little bits and pieces, like in Vanished Kingdoms and Noble Endeavours and I have Christopher Clark’s history of Prussia for when I get some time, but this book in part reminded me how much I don’t know and how much I’d like to find out. It also made me really, really want to visit Germany again. I haven’t been anywhere else where history smacked me in the face quite so vividly in so many different ways. That history is complicated and has a traumatic relationship with the rest of the world, but it’s important to remember the good right along with the bad.

Anyway, if you are at all interested in Germany, I would recommend picking this up. Like I’ve said, it isn’t a straight history and didn’t really satisfy my cravings to know more, but if anything it made those cravings much stronger.

a dance with dragons dreams and dustA Dance with Dragons: Dreams and Dust, George R.R. Martin

I’ve been re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire for months mostly so I could get to book five finally (and so I could know what was going to happen on the show, as I’d forgotten a lot). Unfortunately, I remember A Feast for Crows as a disappointment, and I was pretty bummed that I didn’t much like this first installment of A Dance with Dragons, either. In the UK, they split it into these two books, and the first half just didn’t grab me although I slogged through. I guess I’d forgotten in my head how sexist, brutal, and depressing Martin’s world is. I was primarily disturbed by the excessive and unnecessary sexism, in this particular book; it just felt relentless and I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading the book as much as I thought I would. Plus, I think at this point, the series is just too long. A new minor character seems to pop up every other page, distracting me from the characters who are actually interesting to read about, but everything just gets worse for them too, with no actual break. It’s too dark, too long, too frustrating to read. I used to like this a whole lot more than I do now and discovering that has been disappointing. I haven’t been in a rush to pick up the second half and I’m not sure when I will.

Review: The Bees, Laline Paull

the beesFlora 717 is a worker bee, designed to be a silent sanitation worker who simply picks up after her betters. But Flora can talk in a way that her sisters can’t, so despite the fact that she is an ugly, large brown bee, completely unlike her black-and-yellow striped siblings, she experiences life outside that of the other floras. She spends time feeding the baby bees and even goes foraging. But after a few days pass, and Flora meets the queen, she realizes she has a secret, and she can no longer follow the bees’ mantra: Accept. Obey. Serve. Instead, she has to think for herself and fight for what’s forbidden at all costs.

This is an utterly unusual book. I picked it up as a review copy from Amazon Vine and, typically for me, didn’t actually read the description in any great detail. I just saw “The Hunger Games meets The Handmaid’s Tale” in the description and thought that this would be a book well worth my time, should that actually hold true. And, as it turned out, a book called The Bees is genuinely about bees. Funny, that – I mention it because it colored my experience of the book, especially at the beginning, and because it highlights that this is unusual. The back of the book itself actually also mentions Watership Down, which is probably a more apt comparison, at least as far as non-human subjects go. I can kind of see why they’ve compared it to those books, but it’s not really like them at all, and I can see how someone who was misdirected, who might be like me and not very fond of reading book descriptions, might not actually end up liking the book much.

Anyway, I digress. This was extremely engaging and extremely unusual. Laline Paull has taken the lifecycle of bees, something is generally taught in school and ignored afterwards, and turned it into a compelling story about differing from and defying the norm. Flora isn’t meant to be what she is. Other bees tell her that she’s too big, that she’s too ugly, that they dislike the privilege she appears to have been given, just due to the fact that she has talents outside her social class. They look down on her and every day she fights to be herself and to keep her own secrets from the world. She fights harder than the other bees because she’s different and because she feels she has to earn her privilege, which really made me root for her.

I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about bees, so I have genuinely no idea how “right” the author gets the way things actually work, but given that the bees tend to use dustpans and brushes and curtsey to each other, I don’t think she’s going for realism. It seems more to be a story about sticking to your own principles and doing what you feel is right, no matter who looks down on you or disdains you for it. But at the same time, by humanising these bees, she does highlight how little they fit in the modern world, and how little we understand or know about them.

The Bees‘s cover also says it’s “An extraordinary feat of imagination” and I think I’d agree with that. I certainly never thought about what it would be like in a beehive, but I appreciated the perspective and I liked the story. I’d recommend it if you’re looking for something different.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: St Cuthbert's Corpse, David Willem

st cuthbert's corpseSt. Cuthbert died over 1300 years ago, but the mystery of his incorrupt corpse has continued to fascinate generations of religious Brits, especially Northerners. Years after St Cuthbert died, a group of monks opened his tomb for the first time and were amazed to discover that he appeared lifelike in every way; though his body was covered with a white shroud, his limbs were flexible and his skin pliable. Over the centuries, his tomb has been moved across northeast England, finally finding a home in Durham Cathedral, but it’s been opened five times since with different discoveries made each time. David Willem looks at the original sources of each tomb opening to create the most reliable possible account of the corpse’s history.

I found this book unexpectedly fascinating, so much so that I actually came home from reading it on my commute and told my husband all about it (he’s not a history person but tends to listen patiently to my excited ramblings, as in this case). It’s a short book which I read over just two days, covering each instance of tomb-opening from the saint’s death to the last opening in 1899. There is no real ending possible, although the author does draw some conclusions; the saint’s corpse is still in the awe-inspiring Durham Cathedral, but it’s quite unlikely that it will be opened again any time soon. But the way he traces back the history and tries to figure out exactly what happened and how a corpse could be “incorrupt” two hundred years after burial was really interesting. It’s also fascinating to see what might happen to a prominent person’s body for centuries after death. This saint hasn’t been forgotten in the slightest and it does serve to remind us of how our mortal remains might gain a history of their own.

This is a very tightly focused book and doesn’t include much context; we don’t really learn much about what’s happening outside the small piece of the world inhabited by the corpse and those who tended to it. But for someone with a good background of the various periods of history, it’s clear that the corpse is actually impacted by each, from the Viking and Norman invasions to the dissolution of the monasteries right up to the later Victorian interest in antiquities. The way the corpse is treated is itself indicative of the general atmosphere at each given point. Very designed for people who already love history, rather than those who might be dipping their toe into the water, the book contains a number of excerpts from the primary sources consulted by the author. He’ll normally tell the story (and let it be told through the eyes of the primary sources) and then look more carefully at what the person has actually said.

In summary, I really enjoyed St. Cuthbert’s Corpse and would happily read more like it. A quick read that nevertheless adds a dimension onto history, certainly worth the time I spent reading it. I now know a lot more about St. Cuthbert and I’d like to go back to Durham Cathedral to visit the tomb in person.

I received this book for free for review.

Review: Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan

promise of bloodPromise of Blood is “flintlock fantasy” or, an epic fantasy set in a world with guns as well as magic, roughly equivalent to the 18th century (ish) in our world, a new-to-me genre. In this particular series, Field Marshal Tamas, the leader of the Powder Mages, who gain strength from gunpowder, has just overthrown Manhouch, the king, an exceptionally corrupt individual, and is now working to set up his own government against many who would prefer he not do just that. Some of those are in his inner circle, so Tamas enlists the help of Adamat, a private investigator, to find out exactly what’s going on, and his son Taniel “Two-shot” to protect his fledgling state from power-hungry neighbors.

The book felt to me very similar to those I’ve read about the French Revolution, except with a less redeemable monarchy and nobility. The fact that there are old-fashioned guns involved undoubtedly helped, as it seems to further the prospective era of the fantasy along in my head from the typical medieval-esque settings. The people are unhappy and the people are hungry; in the case, though, Tamas does genuinely want to help them. It made for a nice change and provided a different atmosphere than what I was used to. I’ve never read a book in this particular branch of fantasy before, as I generally start being less interested in history when guns get introduced, but I was pleasantly surprised.

I really liked the magic system. The Powder Mages don’t exist in isolation; there are also the Privileged, who work a different kind of magic entirely, and act in a sort of opposition to the Powder Mages. When first starting the book everything seemed very confusing, but it sorts itself out quickly and by the end of this first volume I felt very familiar with how everything was meant to work and who was who. I’d say it’s a similar learning curve to most books of this sort. If you’re starting a new epic fantasy series, you’re going to have to learn the ropes before you can enjoy the story, and this is one that drops its readers straight into the thick of it.

Undoubtedly this book benefited from the fact that I’ve spent the last few months craving fantasy (just like certain sets of historical fiction now suffer from over-reading). I really, really wanted to read a proper epic fantasy and this certainly started me off in that direction. It’s also fast-paced, with consequences that are wide and political but characters that are very human, aspects of books that I love. Probably its only fault is that virtually all of the characters and central players in it are men. Women are rarely featured in positions of power, with a few exceptions, in the particular society McClellan has created, although the foreign Ka-poel, Taniel’s bodyguard, is an excellent example of how women can subvert that.  I think Ka-poel is the most interesting character in the book, simply because she’s mysterious and completely underrated by most of the other characters. I’m really looking forward to seeing where McClellan takes her.

Aside from that particular gripe, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the world and the magic system and I felt I really got to know the characters. I’m invested in what happens next and I’m looking forward to the second book in the series, The Crimson Campaign, out next month.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Review: The Chalice, Nancy Bilyeau

the chaliceJoanna Stafford has been cast out of Dartford Priory with her fellow novices and nuns thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries, but she’s still attempting to live quietly with her five-year-old cousin, Arthur. Fate won’t let her, though; an unexpected visit with relations who have been restored to prominence embroils Joanna in a plot that threatens the very heart of the nation. Even as she attempts to move past her previous life with a man who loves her, she can’t escape the threads of prophecy that wind themselves tighter and tighter as England’s future grows murky.

When I started this book, I’d somehow missed that it was a second book in a series – my own fault for not reading summaries or synopsis of any kind! The author does a good job of filling us in on the missing history, but I would highly recommend reading The Crown first so you don’t miss anything even if by accident.

That aside, though, I really liked this book, to my surprise as generally Tudor fiction doesn’t do it for me any more. Joanna is great as a main character and has a perspective unlike any that I’d read before. She has two struggles in this book; the first is against the prophecy which attempts to dictate her life and the second is to actually find what that life should be after her life in the priory. She’s a very religious girl by nature and by education and her inclinations in that way color her interactions with other people.

I liked the way that the prophecy was interwoven into the story. One of the things that is difficult to grasp for a modern mindset is that, in the medieval period at least, “magic” was often stuck in with religion without people struggling to differentiate between the two. I think this is starting to change at this point in time, but the prophecies around Joanna don’t really conflict with her faith. The messages from the prophets are a gift, not a curse, although Joanna grapples with what they actually mean she must do. The implications of them are interesting albeit extremely unlikely from a historical perspective.

Probably the only thing that annoyed me about this particular book was the love interests. Joanna is clearly a novice in the ways of love as she is with the church, and she never expected to have romantic contact with men. The dissolution of the monasteries changed all that. Joanna is now not only beautiful, but she’s an eligible romantic interest, and two men have feelings for her; Geoffrey Scoville and Brother Edmund, a former monk. Because I had no real background without reading The Crown, I wasn’t able to see how these relationships developed, and I think that affected how I perceived them in this book. Plus, I felt like one in particular pretty much forced himself at her more than once when she wasn’t too thrilled about it, which meant I was not his biggest fan.

Still, though, I really enjoyed reading The Chalice and I can only imagine that I’d have liked it even more if I’d read The Crown, too. I definitely recommend that you start there, but it looks like Nancy Bilyeau is an author to watch.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.