Review: “Chalice,” Robin McKinley

Cover of The truth of the matter is, these days I reread a lot more than I read. I was thinking back over the books I’d read recently and almost all of them were ones I’d read before, that I was (or am) rereading for various reasons: Red DragonThe Hunger GamesRose Madder, dribs and drabs of Mairelon the Magician and A Wizard Alone. There’s nothing wrong with rereading; when I packed up to move to Seattle, the box of books contained the ones I knew I’d always be able to come back to.

But I’ve also been writing more lately, and as comfortable as my old favorites are, I needed some new grist in my mill, so this morning (is today still Monday?) I grabbed Chalice off my shelf — and read the entire thing in a day.

When I’m listing my favorite authors I don’t usually list Robin McKinley, although I’m not sure why. Spindle’s End is one of my all-time favorite books, and Deerskin and Beauty and her short-story collection A Knot In the Grain are books that are lodged in my heart like words on the tip of your tongue. And Chalice has absolutely wormed its way in there too. My copy clocks in at 263 pages, but it didn’t feel like it at all: I zoomed through about two-thirds of it on my (ungodly long) commute to and from Tukwila, and actually ignored Tumblr for several hours to finish it.

Chalice, like many of McKinley’s novels, focuses on a young woman from a simple, hard-working background who is thrust into complex and fraught situations. In this case, our heroine is Mirasol, a beekeeper and woodskeeper who has been made Chalice for her demesne, Willowlands. A demesne’s Chalice is one of twelve roles required to keep a demesne hale and whole, second in importance only to the Master. Due to circumstance we later learn more about, Mirasol has taken on this role without any training, and as the book begins, she’s preparing to welcome a new Master — who not only doesn’t have any training, like her, but has spent the last seven years training as a priest of Fire, a process that has turned him into something more flame than human.

By ArtistArdent on deviantart.

The conflict of the plot is relatively subdued, having to do with political maneuverings by the land’s Overlord; it all comes to a head quite quickly in Part Three and is resolved equally quickly in a way that is quintessentially McKinley-an. The engine of the story is really Mirasol learning her way around her new role — and McKinley building up her world, layer by layer and comb by comb.

And the world-building is far and away my favorite part of this book. McKinley has a deft hand for this kind of thing, and a talent for knowing when to stop the action and explain part of a world’s history, or magical system, or politics, and when (and how) to let characters share information with the reader through dialogue or interior monologue. Chalice also shows her returning to a few motifs that appear in her other works: magic that works through simple, potent symbols of home and hearth; a Fisher King-type connection between lands and their caretakers or rulers; the heroine’s animal friends.

There is a romantic sub-plot, which, eh. McKinley really likes the Beauty and the Beast story, which is fine. It feels a little — not tacked-on, but unnecessary. I enjoyed reading about Mirasol coming to terms with her duties and power, and the platonic and political relationships that came along with them, more than anything. Maybe because I relate more to the story of a young woman given responsibility she’s not sure she can handle, fumbling with how to be political and practical at the same time.

Last but far from least, McKinley’s voice is a joy to read. She and Charles DeLint and Diana Wynne Jones always seem to get under my skin and buzz there — word choice intentional — leaving me half envious of their writing and half elated by their ideas and images.

So Chalice goes back on my shelf. It may not stay there long, though. I reread an awful lot of my books these days.

(Also now I really really really want some bread with honey.)

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