Friday, September 18, 2009

Chalice - Robin McKinley

This review originally appeared at Royal Reviews on the fifth of September, a bit earlier than I'd expected. Here is an edited and slightly expanded version, posted in honor of the one year release date for the hardcover edition:

Chalice
Robin McKinley
Putnam
Copyright Date: 2008
978-0399246760
272 Pages
Young Adult

The Amazon.com description:
As the newly appointed Chalice, Mirasol is the most important member of the Master’s Circle. It is her duty to bind the Circle, the land and its people together with their new Master. But the new Master of Willowlands is a Priest of Fire, only drawn back into the human world by the sudden death of his brother. No one knows if it is even possible for him to live amongst his people. Mirasol wants the Master to have his chance, but her only training is as a beekeeper. How can she help settle their demesne during these troubled times and bind it to a Priest of Fire, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone?

Robin McKinley weaves a captivating tale that reveals the healing power of duty and honor, love and honey.

I love Robin McKinley, her Blue Sword is one of my favorite books of all time, and until just recently, I hadn't realized that it was actually a Young Adult novel. The same thing is true of Chalice. It reads as just a fantasy novel, good for any age.

Chalice is the story of Mirasol, newly chosen as the Chalice of Willowlands after the death of the previous Master and Chalice in a horrific fire. When the story begins, Mirasol is waiting ceremonially for the new Master, who was something never seen before: someone who had returned from a life as one of the priests of Elemental fire. Mirasol herself is something never seen before: a honey Chalice, when most of the previous Chalices were focused through water or wine.

Everything is beautifully described, from the tastes of various types of honey to the details of the characters. Even the bees come in for description several times, all of which adds to the book and its' atmosphere.

Not only does Mirasol have to figure out her new role "on the job" as it were, because she was chosen for the role of Chalice with no warning, soon there are outsiders scheming for control of Willowlands, her home.

As the story builds, we learn of the role of the Master and the Chalice in the magic of this world, where everything seems to be done in a very ritualistic manner. The roles of Master and Chalice are not the only ones though: there's also the Landsman, Oakstaff, Clearseer and Prelate, among others who make up the Circle that runs the Demesne. This is my one real complaint about the book. Even by the end of the story, I still had no clue what these other members of the Circle actually did, what their roles in the world McKinley had created are. Also, the conflict in the story could have used a slight bit more fleshing out. I didn't quite see the motivations some of the "villain" characters had.

Really, the story is focused on a very small part of the world, and we never leave it, although there are hints of things going on outside of the region of Willowlands. It actually makes for a nice change in a way, where the story isn't revolving around world-shaking events, although, for the people involved in the story, the outcome is vitally important.

I've got to make a special note about the cover art for Chalice. It's absolutely gorgeous! In fact, I think it might be one of the prettiest covers I've seen this year. Simple and clean, but beautiful. There's a slight celtic feel, but it seems like the sort of thing you might see painted on English chinaware (on the Antiques Roadshow, usually).
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