Chalice by Robin McKinley

20 Aug

Robin McKinley is an author I really respect – I’ve read a few of her books, and one of the things I admire most is the variation in style and subject in her work. She’s got the amazing Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, some of the best adventure fantasy that I’ve ever read. Then she’s got some wonderful fairy tale retellings like Beauty and Spindle’s End. She’s also covered more of the urban fantasy/horror realm with Sunshine, an extremely popular and beloved adult fantasy with a Buffy-esque vibe. Clearly, girlfriend has some range. I picked up Chalice because I just trust McKinley to tell me a ripping good yarn in her talented and intelligent voice, and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. Was it my favorite of her works? No, and I’m not sure why, but I’ll try to figure that out here.

While reading Chalice, I became aware that I had read this book previously, but I have no idea how long ago. I got that weird deja vu feeling, you know? But no matter, because I clearly didn’t remember details or the ending – huzzah! Chalice is technically classified as YA for grade 9 and up, but I think McKinley’s writing and ideas are sophisticated enough to be considered as completely satisfying for adults as well. (Please don’t misunderstand me – I read a ton of YA and don’t feel like there needs to be a distinction between young adult and adult books 99% of the time. Good writing is good writing, no matter what age it’s intended for.) Chalice refers to the ceremonial role that our heroine, Mirasol, fills in her kingdom. Once a beekeeper and woodskeeper, Mirasol was inexplicably chosen to fill the role of Chalice after the previous Chalice, along with the previous Master, had died in a fire. She is untrained, alone, and incredibly overwhelmed by her new position, the loss of her former life, and the aching despair she feels in her land. As a member of an “old” family and the Chalice, Mirasol can hear the earthlines of the land, magical currents that speak to the health and vitality of the country. Together with the rest of the ceremonial Circle, led by the Master, they must heal their country or watch it fall into the hands of the Overlord. Adding to her difficulties, the new Master has been called back from his indoctrination to Fire Priesthood and is barely human any longer. Mirasol and the new Master must learn how to fill their new roles, heal their land, and maneuver through the political and magical difficulties of their situation.

Phew, that was a long summary. Honestly, it’s so hard to sum up everything that’s going on in this novel, which in actuality doesn’t have an amazingly fast-paced plot. It’s more like Mirasol and the Master are both in incredibly difficult and complicated circumstances with SO MUCH riding on their success. McKinley does a fantastic job communicating the pressure Mirasol feels and takes a slow, methodical pace in exploring those feelings and their ramifications. It’s incredibly mature in that way – emphasis isn’t placed on exciting plot developments, but more on the discovery of oneself and the responsibilities all of us have to face at times before we’re ready. I read a review of this book that mentions it’s connection to Beauty and the Beast, and I can see that a bit. The Master is perceived as a bit of a “beast” in that he’s not quite human anymore. But I really felt like the relationship between the Master and Mirasol took a backseat to the discussion and exploration of the connection between human beings and the land and both the pleasure and the pain of tradition and duty. I’m trying to put my finger on why it didn’t satisfy me as completely as some of her other books have, such as The Hero and the Crown or Beauty. Maybe because the ratio of introspection to action was a little too heavily weighted toward introspection? I think I found the last quarter of the book a little slow, and then the ending tied everything up so neatly and quickly that I felt it was a little…easy. That’s a small gripe overall though; I really enjoy McKinley’s writing style and her ideas. I have a couple more of her books to read – I’ve never read Sunshine, surprisingly, and she has a newer book called Pegasus out now. I can’t even remember what a pegasus is – is it a unicorn that flies? Anyway, time for me to track that one down to find out!

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