Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chalice (book) by Robin McKinley

At first, I wasn't sure I was going to like this. It started off kind of ordinary, then I got a few pages further, and I was hooked. And also somewhat confused, but loving it.

Synopsis:

Mirasol has always considered herself an ordinary beekeeper, quietly tending her woodlot. Although the Master, Chalice, and their Circle are technically of interest and concern to everyone who lives in Willowlands, because their actions and decisions can affect the stability and welfare of the land and everyone and everything living there, Mirasol didn't really think she had any kind of direct connection to that group. Unfortunately, the Master's behavior, always wild to begin with, has grown wilder over time, and his Chalice does not seem to be able to control him. In the end, the Master's wildness kills them both.

Mirasol's quiet life changes when things go suddenly, drastically, magically awry at her woodlot and the Circle visits her cottage to tell her that she is the new Chalice. In the normal order of things, Mirasol would have been the apprentice of the old Chalice and gradually made to understand her duties and powers. Unfortunately, the old Chalice had never named an apprentice, and Mirasol is left to figure out what she must do and how she must do it on her own. Desperately, she gathers up every scrap of information she can find in books. What she can't find in books she must learn through trial and error, because no one seems to want to help her, or even look at her. It's obvious that, if they could have, the Circle would have chosen someone else as Chalice, but Mirasol is Chalice, and that's that.

It's hard to say who's more unwanted - Mirasol as Chalice, or the man, the exiled brother of the old Master, named the new Master. When he was exiled by his brother, the new Master was sent to become a priest of Fire. When he was asked to go back to Willowlands to be the new Master, it was almost too late - he had almost, but not quite, passed the point where he could no longer live among human beings. As it is, the new Master finds it difficult to touch human beings without searing them to the bone and burns Mirasol upon meeting her for the first time. Living in the human world exhausts him.

Both Master and Chalice are ill-equipped for their new duties, but they have to settle into their roles as best they can, because, if they don't, Willowlands will suffer. When the Master, Chalice, and Circle are in an upheaval, the land suffers and literally tears itself apart. Unfortunately, an Overlord is watching the Master and Mirasol's every move, trying to find an excuse to remove the current Master and name a new, outblood Master. Even under calmer circumstances, naming an outblood Master can be a disastrous thing. With Willowlands as unsettled as it is, an outblood Master would likely destroy it. Mirasol desperately wants to keep the current Master and heal Willowlands, but she's barely holding on as Chalice. As it is, she knows that, as a honey Chalice, she's unusual, because there has never been a honey Chalice before. All she can do is try things out, see if they work, and hope she doesn't do too much damage.

Unfortunately, with her lack of political savvy, Mirasol ends up making a misstep, and it becomes more likely that an outblood Master will be named. It isn't until it's almost too late that she begins to actually talk with the Grand Seneschal, who had always intimidated her, and finds in him a good ally. In the end, it's Mirasol's bees, honey, and wax that help tip things in the current Master's favor.

Commentary:

This is one of those books that it's hard to write a summary for, because, really, not much actually happens. I suppose you could say it's a political story, but it's the politics of a strange fantasy land, from the perspective of someone who has very little idea of what they're doing. In a way, it was kind of exhausting, because so much of it is in Mirasol's head, and Mirasol spends most of the book absolutely drained. She doesn't sleep much while she's trying to learn how to do her job, and, when things start to fall apart even more than they had been, she pretty much stops sleeping entirely. I liked Mirasol a lot and kept wishing I could give the poor woman (girl? I can't remember if her age was ever mentioned) a vacation.

The thing about this book that really hooked me, beyond the fact that I liked Mirasol and felt like cheering her on, was the world it was set in. Even though the whole "humans beings directly linked to the well-being of the land" bit has been done before, I liked it. Maybe it's because it always seems to ramp up the tension - if bad things are happening, the human beings who are linked to the land have to worry not only about their personal well-being, but also the well-being of their very environment and the other beings who live in it.

Maybe it's because it wasn't so long ago that I reread McKinley's Beauty, but the Master made me think of the Beast from the "Beauty and the Beast" story. He couldn't really be looked upon at first and seemed to inadvertently cause problems all the time, just by his very existence. Although I was expecting some romance, because I know Robin McKinley's habit of including at least a little romance in everything (this is not a complaint, by the way), if I hadn't had experience with her books before, I'm not sure I would have expected Mirasol and the Master to end up together. Friends, yes, husband and wife, no.

But it's possible that I'm assuming even more romance in their relationship than there actually is - in Mirasol's world, I think that marriage is possibly more of a stabilizing thing than necessarily a romantic thing. Mirasol and the Master care for and respect each other, but I'm not sure that it can be said that they love each other, not yet. It's not like they really know each other all that well, even by the end of the book. I could wish for a sequel that further develops their relationship, but I already know that's not likely to happen. I believe that, other than The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, McKinley hasn't ever written more than one book with the same setting and/or characters.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I really need to reread her stuff. Happily, I think my library may have a book by her that I've never even read before - that should be nice.

Read-alikes:
  • Sea of Wind (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This is the second volume in Ono's Twelve Kingdoms series - however, it can probably still be enjoyed by someone who hasn't read the first volume, even though certain details may go unnoticed. In the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, kirin serve the important role of choosing the kings who rule each kingdom. Unfortunately, the unborn kirin of Tai is torn from the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and spends several years in our world, not knowing that he is really a kirin and not a human. When he is brought back to the Twelve Kingdoms, he must somehow figure out how to be a proper kirin, because only he can choose the next king of Tai. Tai's last king almost ran the kingdom to the ground, and it is in desperate need of a strong ruler, but can a kirin who doesn't know how to be a kirin really figure out who the next ruler should be? Similar to Chalice, this book features a world where each kingdom is intimately linked to its ruler - if the king is flawed and rules badly, the land and its people literally suffer. Like Mirasol, Taiki (the kirin) has no idea what he needs to do or how he should do it, although at least Taiki has others around him who try to help him.
  • Sebastian (book) by Anne Bishop - A long time ago, the world of Ephemera was split into many smaller lands, connected by bridges that can take a person to the land where they truly belong. Each land has its own character and may belong to the Dark, the Light, or somewhere in between the two. Sebastian, a half-incubus, lives in one of the Darker lands and is surprised when one day a sweet young woman who seems to obviously belong to a land of the Light ends up in his land. Even though he knows she's not the sort of person who should be with someone like him, he can't help but start falling for her. However, they both have other things to worry about, too - something truly evil is killing beings in Sebastian's land and other places. Those who'd like another story in which the land is intimately linked to its people might like this. Similar to Chalice, this book begins by just dumping you in the thick of the story - part of the initial fun is just figuring out how the world works. Just a warning, though - this book has more violence, blood, and sexual situations than Chalice.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This is the first book in Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series. Talia is part of a very restrictive community that she doesn't feel she fits in with. She dreams of being able to leave and serve Heralds (sort of like travelling peace-makers, although they do much more than that) and their Companions (beings that have bonded with humans and that look like horses, but that are at least as intelligent as humans). Talia's wish is granted when a Companion finds her and bonds with her, taking her away to be trained as a Herald and the new Queen's Own (emotional advisor to the queen). Like Mirasol, Talia has to deal with political machinations and stressful situations in which she doesn't quite know what she should do or how she should do it - plus, she's hesitant to ask others for help, after years of receiving emotional and sometimes physical abuse from several of her own family members. There are also other books in the series that feature characters with an intimate bond with the land.

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