Robin McKinley is one of my all-time favorite authors. I discovered her Damar stories when I was at the age where most children’s books were too juvenile and yet I wasn’t ready to jump into the world of grown-up novels. McKinley writes books that transcend silly things like age and instead uses eloquent prose to imagine vivid fairy-tale worlds. Over the years I’ve acquired most of McKinley’s books, but “Chalice” was completely new to me.
The protagonist, Mirasol, is a simple beekeeper lives in a magical kingdom called a demense whose stability depends on a council called The Circle, which is headed by a Master and a Chalice. When the old Master and Chalice suddenly die, the demense falls into turmoil. In an unusual turn of events Mirasol becomes the new Chalice, and the new Master is a fire elemental priest trainee who is no longer quite human. The two must learn to work together in order to restore wholeness to the demense.
“Chalice” is unique because it employs a method of world-building that I normally hate so well that it works perfectly. McKinley throws you into Mirasol’s demense with little explanation. You begin not knowing what exactly a Chalice is or does, just that Mirasol is one. The world unfolds as the story does, and we learn more about the setting gradually over time. Normally this type of world-building leaves me completely lost and confused, but McKinley rocks it.
Mirasol is a strong female character, but also one who has more of a traditional female role. The Master is always a guy and the Chalice is always a girl, but the two have powers that complement and counterbalance each other. If either one fails at his or her job, the demense suffers. Neither Mirasol nor the Master are prepared for their new roles, but rise to the occasion with dignity. Mirasol struggles to understand the politics of the Circle because she’s unaccustomed to dealing with people with ulterior motives, meanwhile the Master is struggling to adapt to being human again and controlling his fire powers so that he doesn’t burn everything he touches. “Chalice” can be viewed as a coming of age as each grow to fit their new roles while questioning their own abilities and limitations.
I would recommend “Chalice” to anyone who enjoys a well-written fairy tale.