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Fantasy Friday

Each Friday, we will post a review of a Fantasy book. 

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Review written by Althea M. (althea)

Robin McKinley’s well-known for both her original fantasies and her re-tellings of folk and fairy tales, fans have given the most acclaim to The Blue Sword (which was my introduction to her writing, and has become one of my favorite books) and its prequel The Hero and The Crown.

More recently, two novels saw her branching out into slightly different genres: Sunshine is an urban-fantasy vampire novel, and Dragonhaven also features a modern setting, but is aimed at a younger audience. While both were good, I didn’t feel that either was among her best.

So I see Chalice as a bit of a return to form. The story blends the two types of writing where McKinley is strongest: it’s an original fantasy with the feeling of an ancient legend or folk tale. In this, it may appeal even more to readers of Patricia McKillip, who excels at this sort of mythopoeic creation, than to readers of some of McKinley’s other books.

Here, we have a land of small kingdoms, or demesnes, each cared for by a Master and a Circle of advisors, who are called to this service by earth magic. Taking literally feudalism’s idea of people being bound to the land, the book explores not only the authority inherent in such power but the duty and obligations it would entail.

The demesne of Willowlands is in trouble. The former Master and Chalice (the second-highest position in the realm) were careless, abused their power and died tragically. Now Mirasol, a humble woods- and beekeeper, has been called to the position of Chalice. In the absence of any other heir to take on the mantle, the former Master’s brother has been summoned back from the enigmatic order of Fire Priests. Such initiates are never expected to return to their former realms. Loved by the people in his boyhood, now it is doubtful whether the new Master is any longer even human; it is sure that he is dangerous and terrifying. (This may immediately bring to mind certain questions for readers familiar with McKinley’s affinity for Beauty and the Beast.)

This is not a coming-of-age tale. Although Mirasol is not old, she is a mature and independent woman who is self-sufficient and competent in her vocations before new expectations are thrust upon her. Her struggle is an adult struggle involving both self-discovery and losing a certain naïveté regarding duplicity and games of power. Ultimately the book is about the difficulty of shouldering responsibility and the importance of standing up for what is right. Along the way, there’s also a powerful message of respect and care for nature and the earth, a deep and abiding love of animals, and gentle romance.

Focusing solely on the story at hand, McKinley leaves intriguing questions about the background and details of the world she’s created unanswered. The effect is somewhat that of looking at a story which floats on its own, light and airy as a soap bubble. It’s a shimmering thing, but some may prefer a more grounded feeling. The land of Chalice is not without its problems, but it is possessed of a purity of beauty and a certainty of morality. This may not please readers who are looking for a sophisticated political or social critique. Some may see it as an idealized portrayal of the virtues of a ‘simple life’ that has never existed. But one can also view stories like this, in their seeming simplicity, as burning to the core of the concerns of life, creating guideposts of flame that one can hold to in the face of banality.

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