McKinley, Robin. Chalice (2009). 272 Pages. Ace. $7.99
I’ve read every single book Robin McKinley has ever written, and I’ve read some of them so many times that they have fallen apart and had to be replaced. Some, I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed more than others. Chalice is midddling; it’s not my favorite of her books, but it is good.
To explain the world a little bit, there is an Overlord who rules the region, like a King. The region has been broken up into demesnes*, and each demesne has a Master- the lord of the estate- and his Circle which is made up of various people who have different skills and responsibilities. Mirasol- our protagonist- was a simple beekeeper and woodsman until she had to step into the role of the Chalice for an ailing demesne. Too many years of a bad Master, a broken Circle, and a weak Chalice have left the land hurting.
Mirasol isn’t quite sure what she is expected to do as Chalice- she never had an apprenticeship, and acquired the job after the last Chalice died- but she’s learning from the books she can find, and trying to do what she can. As a beekeeper, she was in the unique position to become the only Chalice whose power works through honey, something which makes her feel even more inadequate and unprepared.
There is also the Master, a priest of fire who has lost a lot of his humanity through his priesthood. As the younger brother of the previous Master, he is the next to ascend through bloodlines, but his position as a fire priest has the entire population of the demesne worried. The Master himself is unsure about himself or his ability to help, but he loves the land, and is trying to keep it whole.
Mirasol and the Master both love their home, and want to save the land. Together, they hope to protect the Willowlands, repair the damage done to it, and perhaps find themselves in the process.
This book reads like a fairytale- something Ms McKinley works well with- and has the feeling of high-fantasy which marks all of her work. Chalice, like so many of her other books feels like it is in three parts; the introduction, the rising, and the climax. While the plot remains the same through all three, there are very different feelings from one part to the next. It stays continuous enough that it feels like a single book, which is key.
The Quick Version:
Mirasol is the sort of protagonist who works well for a world so alien to us. She is new enough to her role that she is still learning, which allows the reader to learn with her. She is also the sort of character you find yourself rooting for, and really liking. The Master as well is a very sympathetic character; you want to like him as much as Mirasol wants to like him. The plot and the world are incredibly alien to our own, which means that they are sometimes very hard to understand, but it is mostly explained well. The book is not suspenseful, and does not grab you so you can not put it down, but it is a nice, relaxing read. It gets a 4 out of 5 (perhaps my most common rating) because it is good, but it is not her best book.
* I was confused by “demesne” when I first came across it. It is a large estate, typically controlled by nobles. It’s not a common word, but it works here.