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/
Starlight Book Reviews
Bookshelves of Doom
Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat
Buy it here: Chalice
13 thoughts on “Chalice by Robin McKinley”
This is one of the few McKinley books I haven’t read as I’ve had a bit of a hard time getting my hands on it (I primarily get books through bookmooch or my library). Your review really makes me want to read it! Must. Try. Harder. Maybe my new library has it…
Ooh, I hope you can track it down! It’s excellent. 🙂
This is an excellent review. This sounds like a good book to introduce me to Robin McKinley. I will add it to my wishlist. Going to check out more sci fi and fantasy at my favorite annual booksale.
I hope you enjoy Chalice–and find lots of great books at your booksale! 🙂
I’ve read several of McKinley’s novels and story collections (written with Peter Dickinsen) but not this one. It is now on my TBR list! Perfect for Once Upon A Time.
I thought it was perfect for the challenge too! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
I like McKinley’s writing style I must admit and was going to pick up a copy of Beauty for this challenge. I like that she is almost fixated on this story – it reminds me of Rebecca when the young woman first meets Max and is talking about her father being an artist – who paints trees – or at least paints one tree over and over – from different angles. It’s really interesting. I wonder how she feels about the different versions herself, whether she’s happy with them all or keeps rewriting them in order to improve?
Oh, interesting Rebecca comparison…although I do think stories, especially classic tales like Beauty and the Beast, have enormous potential for being explored in very different ways. McKinley seems to accept it as a matter of course, in various things I’ve read, though in a note with Rose Daughter she seemed rather surprised to be writing another direct retelling. The story simply appeared, and so…
I enjoyed this one lots too, but couldn’t help but feel sad that we weren’t given just a tad more romance….
Exactly. I was happy with the particulars…but a little more would have been so much better! That was something that was better on a reread too, because I think I picked up on more of the subtleties in the earlier scenes.
Oh, and thanks for the link.
I loved this book so much when I read it last year. It didn’t feel so rushed to me but maybe because I read it very slowly. I didn’t want it to end. It has such a wonderful atmosphere.
Istill haven’t read anything else by her. That’s very interesting what you wrote about her saying he rewrites The Beauty and the Beast again and again. It’s a fascinating tale.
The Fire Priest is an amazing character. Thanks for this wonderful post. It brought back the book and makes me want to read her again soon.
Most of the book didn’t feel at all rushed…just the last bit! If you enjoyed this one, I highly recommend McKinley’s others. She’s one of the few authors I know who is very *different* in every novel, but always good too. I think I’d recommend Rose Daughter, perhaps…it reminds me the most of Chalice.