For the second year in a row, I began the Once Upon a Time Challenge with a Robin McKinley re-read. Last year it was Rose Daughter, a surreal “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. This year it was Chalice, about a beekeeper trying to take on a very difficult magical role.
Chalice is set in a fascinating magical realm that I so wish we could spend more time in. The land is divided into demesnes (rather like Fiefdoms) each of them ruled over by a Circle, twelve individuals with specific roles, bonded together by magic. The first member of the Circle is the Master, the hereditary Lord of the demesne. The second member is the Chalice, who binds the demesne together, tending to everything from magically encouraging fellowship among the Circle to quieting restless earthlines.
In Mirasol’s demesne, an unstable Master and his Chalice died suddenly together, sending the land into disarray. In desperation, the Circle summons the Master’s brother, now a Fire Priest, the last blood heir who can assume the duties of Master. Meanwhile, Mirasol finds the powers of a Chalice suddenly erupting within her, and she must find a way to learn and manage her new role.
This is a fairly slim book, but hard to summarize, because the world and the magic system is so integral and so complex–and not quickly explained in the book! McKinley has a tendency to throw the reader into a novel without a lot of explanation, and then drop dribs and drabs of information as we go. I often find that frustrating in books, but McKinley is generally quite good at making it work. All the same, I think I did enjoy this book more on a reread because I had a clearer context at the beginning.
It’s a truly fascinating world and magic system, and it all ties together into the larger conflict. The demesne is threatened both from within and without, from political manuevering and from the land literally fighting the instability brought on by human actions. Mirasol and the new Master have to work together to hold the demesne together, while dealing with their personal internal struggles, and with conflict among the people around them, who have serious reservations about a Fire Priest Master.
Mirasol is an excellent heroine, one who is clearly strong, intelligent and good-hearted, but doesn’t entirely believe she has any of those qualities. She’s a beekeeper who is suddenly dealing in things so much bigger than her former realm, and she’s struggling to learn the role and duties of Chalice. Even more, her struggle is how to stay Mirasol within the Chalice, and carve her own unique path.
I pretty much can’t avoid liking the Master as a hero. He’s dark and terrifying and mysterious (it’s that Fire Priest thing), while kind and caring underneath the intimidating exterior. I love dark, brooding heroes with hearts of gold, and this is one of the most clearly good heroes of that type. His magic is also just so intriguing. As a Fire Priest, he’s been physically transformed so that he’s not quite human anymore, and he’s struggling to adapt to this return home.
Arguably, this is McKinley’s third “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, though unlike the first two, which lift direct elements from the fairy tale, this is only the tale in its themes. It is a story about a girl who finds herself, while helping a man who lost his humanity learn to be human again…but all the surrounding details are different. Still, I’m sure the themes are deliberately there. Somewhere I heard McKinley say that “Beauty and the Beast” is THE story for her, the one she’s really telling, to a greater or lesser extent, in all of her novels. That is certainly abundantly clear here.
If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that the ending is too fast. It’s completely right. I love the way things work out, all the earlier hints and clues are there to set up the conclusion, and the details are all immensely satisfying. But it happens so quickly! The first time I read Chalice, I read the ending twice, because I just couldn’t get the emotional resolution so fast. This time, I found myself rereading individual paragraphs, trying to linger on key moments. The point here is that I love the whole thing…I just wish there was more of it.
This is among my favorite McKinley books, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend having honey on hand while you read…remember, Mirasol is a beekeeper, and honey figures prominently!
Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/
Buy it here: Chalice