Mirasol is a beekeeper, a honey-gatherer, with an ability to speak to the earthlines—the sentient parts of Willowlands, where she lives. The concerns of Master, Chalice, and Circle, who govern Willowlands, have nothing to do with her—until the current Master and Chalice die in a fire and leave no heirs to take their places. The Master’s closest relative has been a priest of Fire for the past seven years; he is not quite human anymore. And then the Circle comes to Mirasol and tells her that she is the new Chalice, and it will be up to her to bind the land and its people with a Master, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone…
Mirasol was a modest beekeeper before a terrible tragedy forced her into a position of power. The trouble is that she has had no training, a new Master, and work that must be done, or else everything will fall apart. Mirasol’s struggles are not small and simple as they once were: she is trying to hold together something much bigger than herself, while fighting ignorance (her own and others’), politics, and self-doubt. Chalice is a quiet book, focused on one woman thrust suddenly into a life she could never have imagined. At the same time it is a powerful story about an understated type of heroism – that of an ordinary person, stretching to (and past) their limits to make the world a better place.
That’s the story. What about the writing itself? I’m going to tell you what it’s like, and you’re going to give me a look and think, “Cecelia, are you serious?! That sounds boring.” And I’m going to say… just hear me out. McKinley is as her most McKinley-esque in this book: there’s little dialogue, the story is told in the third-person, and there’s a lot of exposition, a lot of time in spent in main character Mirasol’s head. Stay with me. It’s a cozy, warm sort of story for all that. Said coziness comes from: honey, Mirasol’s affinity with animals & bees, her modesty and thirst for knowledge, and the juxtaposition of the physical limits of the human body (small, immediate concerns) with “larger” matters like a land falling apart, loneliness, and the responsibility of power. The writing may not be galloping-along-action, but it’s suited to the size and scope of this story, and it perfectly represents the main character.
The first couple of times I read Chalice I simply read it, and was pulled into its calm. This time through I enjoyed it just as well as before, but I kept a somewhat more critical eye out – as I have been doing with all of my reading lately. Conclusion? Although the book’s focus is narrow, room could have been made to explore some interesting themes. I’m talking “issues” like gender stereotypes (inherent in the assigned power roles in this fantasy world, as it turns out), diversity (the Master has black skin that has been burned by magical fire, but otherwise there’s a monochromatic cast of characters), and world-building (what is lost with the hyper-focus on one woman?). As I said, I still enjoyed the book – but I am working on my awareness of diversity. My reading requirements have evolved.
In all, Chalice is a warm, genuine sort of fantasy – the type of story that will appeal to readers who don’t usually find themselves in the fantasy section at the bookstore but want the book equivalent of a cup of tea and a fuzzy shawl around the shoulders.
Recommended for: readers who prefer quiet, character-driven stories, anyone interested in books light on dialogue and heavy on beekeeping, and fans of Patricia McKillip.