“Chalice” by Robin McKinley

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.

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I read this book as a part of the Speculative Fiction Challenge hosted by Baffled Books and the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

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Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on ““Chalice” by Robin McKinley

  1. What a great blog! I’ve only ever read Beauty by Robin McKinley but I love her and can’t wait for this semester to be over so I can read things on my personal TBR list.

    I haven’t had a chance to look through all of your blog yet, although I will soon, but have you ever read anything by Robin Hobb? She writes some amazingly good speculative fiction. If you haven’t, start with The Farseer Trilogy. You won’t regret it. 🙂

    Jessica @ talesbetweenthepages.com

    • Thanks! It’ll be awesome when the semester’s over… I can’t wait to be able to relax and read without having to worry about getting behind on schoolwork.
      I haven’t read any Robin Hobb yet, although I’ve heard good things about her writing.

  2. Never heard of this author before, but this sounds like a really good book. I will have to put it on my wishlist. I am going through a bit of a fairytale phase at the moment!

    Sorry if I post this more than once, wordpress is being funny today!

    • She’s a great author for fairy tales retold! Fairy tales are awesome and I want to read more of them.

  3. Never heard of this author before, but this sounds like a really good book. I will have to put it on my wishlist. I am going through a bit of a fairytale phase at the moment!

    (PS, sorry if I post more that once, WordPress seems to be playing up!)

  4. Never heard of this author before, but this sounds like a really good book. I will have to put it on my wishlist. I am going through a bit of a fairytale phase at the moment!

  5. She seems like a writer who would have been perfect to have discovered at just the age you discovered her! I haven’t read any of her books — although several are on my TBR and I do hope to get to one of them for this year’s OUaT — but I’m looking forward to trying a few. I also like the covers, simple and inviting.

    • She’s one of my favorite authors to this day. Her writing is both beautiful and intelligent, and she breathes new life into traditional fairy tales.

  6. L

    nice review. this sounds like a really good read.. and I like getting thrown straight in. I have yet to read a McKinley novel, but have heard all good things. May start here, with this one.

  7. I didn’t think it had been that long since I read Chalice, but you make me want to read it again. And I agree with you on the world-building–usually it bothers me when we’re just thrown in, but it seems to be a McKinley trademark and she makes it work. I do remember a little trouble adjusting to the world of Chalice…which is all the more reason to reread because I’d probably like it even more with some context now!

    • Even though it took a bit to adjust to the world in “Chalice,” it didn’t get too overwhelming, and it made me want to keep reading. I can’t read the sci-fi author William Gibson because he does the same thing, but the lack of context and explanations completely loses me. McKinley is one of the only authors I know of that can make that particular style of immersion in a different world work very well.

  8. I really do have to buy some more McKinley – I desperately want to read Beauty and this one also sounds so good.
    Thanks
    Lynn 😀

    • Beauty is definitely a good one. McKinley really likes the story of Beauty and the Beast, and even “Chalice” parallels it in some ways. I think you’d enjoy her writing. 😀

  9. I loved Chalice so much. I don’t even dare reading another of her books now but I’ve bought a few right afterwards. Judging from other reviews I read it’s safe to read on. She doesn’t seem to disappoint.
    The world building was a bit confusing but I thought it was a cunning way to let us experience how little Marisol knows, we discover everything with her. I’ve never read a book that could convey this feeling of being new at something and utterly insecure but still confident enough to keep on going.

    • It’s definitely safe to read more of her books. I haven’t read one yet that I haven’t enjoyed.

      One of the interesting things about the world-building in “Chalice” was that you couldn’t really tell what the book was going to be about from the cover blurb. I mean, it said exactly what the book was about, but without context it didn’t make much sense. I loved how we learned about the world as Marisol learned about being the Chalice.

  10. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I’ve only touch a McKinley book ones and only got halfway through it, not because of the book, but because of life, and I was still really impressed by it and plan to pick it up again some time soon. This one sounds like another I might need to swipe up. And what a pretty cover, too!

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