Because she was Chalice she stood at the front door with the Grand Seneschal, the Overlord’s agent and the Prelate, all of whom were carefully ignoring her. But she was Chalice, and it was from her hand the Master would take the welcome cup….
From the very first paragraph, Robin McKinley draws you into the world of Chalice. The title character, whose given name is Marisol, is a young woman called to a position in which she feels woefully inadequate. When the previous Master and his Chalice were killed in a fire, Marisol was chosen to be the new Chalice, the second highest ranking member of the council that governs the demesne. Formerly a lowly woodskeeper and beekeeper, Marisol knows nothing of the ceremonies and duties required of her. Normally, a prospective Chalice would spend years in apprenticeship to the previous Chalice. But these are not normal times, and Marisol must turn to books of history and lore to learn how to bind together the people and land in her charge.
Seven years ago the Master’s brother had been sent away to join the fire priests. When the Master died, his brother had just been initiated into the third level of the fire priests and was on his way to becoming an elemental spirit. He was no longer human, and it was doubtful whether he could survive in a human world. But when the call came for him to come back to his home and become the new Master, the brother did not hesitate. He gave up his place among the fire priests and returned–greatly weakened–to rule the demesne he loved.
But on his return, not all in the demesne loved him. Many of the council members balked at his strangeness and feared he would be unable to control his own fiery powers. Marisol, it seems, is the only one willing to stand by him while he relearns how to live in the human world and how to govern the land. Despite his frightening exterior, she finds him a kind soul in whom she can confide her own doubts and fears. When a coup to depose the new Master is threatened, it is Marisol the Chalice who must find a way to save him, or–failing that–to heal the land so that it will still thrive if an outblood Master gains power. For as much as she longs to save the Master, it is her duty to the land that comes foremost.
McKinley’s writing style is a delight to read. I was torn between wanting to read faster so I could learn more of the story and wanting to read slower so I could revel in the words. Her descriptions of Marisol’s beekeeping activities are portrayed in prose as sweet and flowing as the honey that Marisol mixes into all her ceremonial cups.
I wanted so badly to give this book five stars, but it had one flaw that seems to be a recurring one in McKinley’s books: the ending was weak. I remember this being a significant problem in The Blue Sword as well. You are at the very climax of the story, and suddenly it resolves with a piece of magic that you don’t understand because it wasn’t foreshadowed properly in the preceding chapters. So, four stars for this book, but a very well-earned four stars. This is a beautiful book that will stay in my thoughts for a long time.