Friday, January 2, 2009

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Chalice Chalice by Robin McKinley

published September 18th 2008 by Putnam Juvenile
Hardcover, 272 pages
isbn 0399246762 (isbn13: 9780399246760)

rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Please be as you were.  I will try to help you."  She hesitated, and pulled out the handflower honey and added a little more to the mixture in her cup.  The water was faintly gold against the silver cup; the small stones in the bottom shone like gems.  She did not want god and silver and gems; she wanted ordinary things, commonplace things.  Trees and birdsong and sunlight, and unfractured earth. "Let the earth knit together again, like - like darning a sock.  Here are the threads to mend you with." And she threw a few drops from her cup into the trench. (p 24)
Chalice is the most recent work of Robin McKinley, whose last novel, Dragonhaven (2007), fell short of what McKinley fans know she is able to do.  Prior to Dragonhaven, McKinley had published Sunshine(2003), which won the Mythpoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.  Still, Sunshine, a vampire love story, was a departure from the sort of voice McKinley was wont to use.

Chalice, at last, brings classic McKinley back to us.  Woodwright and beekeeper Mirasol is chosen for a role in the governing Circle of her demesne: the role of Chalice, a position second in importance only to the Master.  As young and uninitiated as she is, the new Master is more so: a Priest of elemental Fire.  The two of them must learn to work together to pull the earthlines back into harmony after the previous Master's seven years of wanton, careless destruction.

This, McKinley's 14th book, offers the same soothing sweetness as Mirasol's honey.  McKinley’s strengths are evident, if not at full force.  Her characterizations are flawless, both engaging and subtle.  Her sense of geography, the ability to create an unknown world and make it tangible to the reader, is unparalleled in fantasy writers.  And while McKinley’s characters battle evil, there’s nothing simple about their understanding of it.  There’s little that’s black and white, but much that ends up being rosy, or even honey-colored.

If I had to describe her weakness in this book, it’s too much telling (of the wrong sort – the sort of backstory narration common to the “Once Upon a Time” of a fairy tale) and not enough personal interaction.  The Master speaks in paragraphs, and a large part of the first section of story is flashback.  This writing style lends to the characterization of Mirasol herself as a loyal over-thinking introvert.

Don’t misunderstand me.  This book is enchanting, full of the McKinley that I have long worshipped – erudite and lovely, a fairy tale as personal journey.  It’s well worth your time, particularly if you have ever loved Cecil/y or Lissar or Honor-as-Beauty. 

While there’s not as much action as The Blue Sword or as much romance as Spindle’s End, Chalice contains the sort of world where, it seems, even Luthe might feel comfortable, and certainly a world to which I hope McKinley takes us again.


  1. It was delicious but also as slow as honey :0 Not one to read for a speed challenge, but one to savor.

  2. Oh now this does sound like a book I'd enjoy. I haven't read any McKinley before. i seem to have read nothing but YA this last year. I must get onto amazon and start a wish list.

    Great review Aerin.

  3. And the cover is so lovely...

    But I think you hit the nail on the head in your description of its weakness!



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