31 July 2011

Review of Robin McKinley's Chalice: Part 2

Now a more concise and directed review of the book Chalice, which I have heretofore been using to explain some of my irritations with the current trends of YA literature:

Rough Summary:
Mirasol is a former beekeeper in a small demesne (feudal region ruled by a Master) who has been thrust into the position of “Chalice.” Chalice is second-in-command over the demesne, the first-in-command being the aforementioned Master. In this region the land is very much alive and the Chalice (Mirasol) has a responsibility to keep the land whole and well with the aid of the remaining eleven members of the ruling circle. She mixes cups for meetings, the only peculiarity being that unlike former Chalices, she mixes the cups of meeting with honey and uses honey in the balms that help heal breaks in the land.

The former Master died before Mirasol became Chalice. Now the younger brother is called upon to be Master, but he had been sent away to become a priest of Fire. Becoming a priest of Fire is a process that eventually makes one no longer human. The younger brother is almost all Fire now, and this is very dangerous and difficult. On first meeting, he accidentally touches Mirasol and causes an unhealing burn which goes straight to the bone.

The subsequent story consists of Mirasol learning to be a good “Chalice,” the Master learning to once again be human (and not to burn his people or his land) and their efforts to keep the land whole and safe during an extremely tumultuous time. Some peripheral characters have aspirations for power which will devastatingly disrupt the ‘earthlines’ which are much like the nerves and veins of the land.


This isn’t a flashy plot-point type of story. It’s more of a “this is what my life and duties are, this is what they used to be, this is how the two intertwine and here are some examples therein.” It’s a softly, sweetly told story. The contrast between Mirasol’s honeyed perspective and the descriptions of the Master’s charred and flickering frame is very interesting.

Mirasol is very much a Robin McKinley heroine, and the Master rings a similar tone as some of her heroes as well. Both have a quiet strength and an unyielding sense of duty. Mirasol is very unexpectedly called upon to be the Chalice and it is very bewildering work for her, but she has a steady persistence which stands in stark contrast to the showy, haphazard methods of so many YA heroines.

There is a climax of action, but it will not satisfy anyone who is reading this book for the sake of action, nor someone whose main thrill in a book is the show-down with the big bad. Read this for beautiful prose--lovely for the mouth to say out loud--for an intriguing perspective on bees and land and fire, for an unusual and richly-built world, and for a gentle, subtle hint of romance.

The narrative does (as I mention in my previous blog-posts) meander, but if you’re a McKinley fan, that’s not going to be altogether surprising. If you aren’t a McKinley fan, then this is NOT the book I would advise you to start with. I would advise either Outlaws of Sherwood, or The Blue Sword. This one is definitely less concrete. The very edges of the story are quite hazy, and McKinley doesn’t give you a whole lot of explanation such as she does in her more traditional, linear stories.

There was one narrative device which I think was slightly overused here (because I began to take note of it, and I wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been too frequent): The book is almost entirely internal to the point that even when there is dialogue Mirasol will speak briefly:

“Hello,” she said. She did not say (XYZ), however.

This happens often, that the narrative informs you of what Mirasol would say, or could say, but does not.

Good book. Had to take a star away so as to distinguish between this and my all-time-read-it-a-dozen-times-favorites. A lovely story, with elegant writing..

Some favorite quotes:

“The flavor of the honey filled her mouth; it felt as if it were seeping through the skin of her mouth and tongue, into her blood, running through her body with every beat of her heart”

There was another pause. “Mirasol,” he said; she looked at him, puzzled. “Mirasol is your name. I cannot…remember mine. In Fire I was Azungbai.”

“Liapnir,” she whispered. “The last Master’s younger brother’s name was Liapnir, the younger brother he sent away to the priests of Fire.”

“Liapnir,” he said. “Liapnir would save Mirasol if he could”

“Perhaps fire runs in our blood”
(-The Master)

“The lines of his face seemed strangely mutable, as if they flickered, almost like flames”

“I am blacker than most of the Fire priests, because there was more of me to burn”
(-The Master)


  1. hi jayme!

    i haven't read mckinley in ages and now am
    desperate to do so! thanks for the great
    review. i will take beautiful prose over action
    any day!


  2. Thank you so much Lea! I've just been dithering away reading reviews for different Young Adult books, while reading this one, and it spawned this three-part review. I definitely am more wont to put up with dense or difficult narratives if it's someone I already love, and McKinley's one in a short list of those.