Chalice by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley

This has been a book I bought which languished on the TBR for a while, but when I wanted a simple fantasy story, this standalone with a modest 263 pages seemed the perfect fit.
The Premise: Mirasol has had a simple, uncomplicated life as a beekeeper. She has had nothing to do with the governing of her demesne. That has been something she left to the Master, his Chalice, and the other other members of the Circle. Then one day, both the Chalice and the Master are killed in one fell blow. Suddenly Mirasol finds herself as the new Chalice, with no idea what she’s doing or how she’s going to keep her demesne from falling apart.  The new Master is the old Master’s younger brother, but they called him back home as he was about to become a fourth level Fire Priest, and he barely remembers how to be human. Now these two inexperienced and unlikely stewards somehow have to settle their land. Failure means severe hardship for the demesne, if not utter annihilation, and many don’t think they can do it. They must not fail.
Read an excerpt of Chalice here
My Thoughts:  This is a fantasy story told in the third person, but with very subjective narration focused on Mirasol’s character. Despite it being a third person POV, there’s a dreamy, stream of consciousness feel to the writing. Some of the writing is almost poetic in the way McKinley plays with the rules to tell the story. The reader is very close to Mirasol’s thoughts, which are often a jumble of wondering how she got where she is now and how she should proceed. There’s a lot of stress but at the same time, Mirasol is has a natural knack for her work and she she throws herself into researching her Chalice duties to expand this knack.

”   Every day her mind swam and struggled while her face and body demonstrated serenity and control. She went home exhausted every night, with the Master’s exhaustion haunting her. What a pair, she thought sadly. Poor Willowlands. Furthermore she had even less time to pursue her studies — and she urgently needed to continue her studies. She had grown accustomed to sleeping badly as a result of not being able to turn her thoughts off; now she slept worse on account of the pain in her hand. She lay awake in the dark, thinking about what she could be learning if she sat up and lit a candle, and too bone-weary to fumble for her tinder-box.
But since the Master came, she thought, am I not putting out fewer fires?
Perhaps that is only because I am spending too much time bearing Chalice to a Circle who will not let me bind them together?
Is that my failure or theirs?
She should be asleep now. But you could pick at a dingy bandage in the dark and put off making even the tiny additional decision of lighting a candle.”

The world building happens organically as Mirasol tries to adapt herself to her new position. What we learn is that the Chalice is the second most important person in an eleven person Circle which is lead by a twelfth, the Master. She (for the position is always a female one) holds a chalice and mixes the right ingredients into it for every ceremony and occasion, which then all circle members sip. The concoctions the Chalice makes have special significance, and have potent powers (Mirasol can mend the damage of an earthquake and calm agitated animals among other things). She and the Master are most closely connected to the land and their task is to keep their land calm and happy. The land itself is like a living breathing animal, or maybe many living animals, which Mirasol and the Master have a connection to. When the connection is broken, so is the land.
Mirasol is unique as a Chalice both because of her abrupt appointment and lack of knowledge (in a strange oversight, the neither the last Chalice nor the last Master had an official Heir), and because her affinity is for honey.  This is a strange affinity, but the talk of Mirasol’s bees and her relationship with them is sweet and wondrous. The writing here makes this part of her life is warm and golden; a summer day. In contrast, her dealings with the Circle have a stressed out, jagged feel.
The only person who seems to be on the same page, albeit in a incredibly quiet way, is the new Master, a man who everyone is more than a little afraid of. His skin has been blackened by fire, his eyes are red, and his touch has burnt the Chalice, leaving her with a wound will not heal. He’s a dark and mysterious figure, but when he was fully human he loved the land, and even now he wants to help it. Mirasol and he have a quiet relationship that grows because they keep finding themselves in the same place, and have to face the same threats. But I’m not sure I’d categorize the story as romantic. What romance there is, is so subtle if you were to blink, you’d miss it.
Overall: This is not a story that really made my heart race – it was more of a story that centered me: a comfort read, a nice fantasy story to escape in for a few hours, leaving me with a pleasant but ephemeral aftertaste. While I wished that there was a little more, it was a good read.
P.S. I ADORE the cover of the Firebird trade paperback I own. So pretty and matches the dreaminess of the inside pages.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Tempting Persephone – mixed
Charlotte’s Library – positive
Em’s Bookshelf – 4 stars (out of 5)
One Librarian’s Book reviews – 4 stars (out of 5)
Books and Other Thoughts – positive (but wanted more)

12 thoughts on “Chalice by Robin McKinley

  1. Yes. I really enjoyed this one. I loved the idea, the world, the writing, and those two characters. I just wanted it to be 100 pages longer. More please.

  2. It really is a quiet comfort read and like you, I would have wanted more of it – maybe more development for the romance? But I love Robin McKinley and I’ll read anything that she writes. I want to reread her books so I can review them on the blog.

    • I think we are on the same page (again)! I would have loved to find out a bit more about what happened next, but then I could see it filling a whole book.. Too bad that McKinley’s muse doesn’t always let her write sequels. I think we have to be content with what we get.

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