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 Marisol 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… — from the backcover description
Sometimes, book challenges give me grief because I have to read a book about bees in the next three days, and I don’t have anything like that on my TBR, so I have to search for a book at random and read it hoping it won’t be too bad. Sometimes, book challenges make me pick up books that I would have never touched otherwise, and those books end up being awesome. I really like book challenges.
This was my first Robin McKinley book, and I had overlooked it at first because the summary sounded rather confusing. The summary of my edition was even more confusing, talking about chalice and binding and demesne, and I had no idea what the book was about. Then I started reading. I think it was a good thing that I went into it without knowing what to expect, because I enjoyed getting to know the author’s world bit by bit. The world that McKinley built is possibly the strongest character. It’s an early medieval, feudal world, in which the land is alive with magic and will rebel if its Master is unsuitable, through earthquakes and flash fires and droughts. I liked how there was never any info dump, but rather the various aspects of this world and its magic were explained one at a time as they appeared in the story.
Marisol, the protagonist, was a wonderful character. She’s the typical fairytale heroine, orphaned daughter of a woodsman and a beekeeper who suddenly has greatness thrust upon her when the land chooses her as the new Chalice — but at the same time she’s a very real and likeable person. The descriptions of how she pretended to know what she was doing during the rituals, even though she had no idea because nobody had prepared her for that, reminded me very much of adulthood. Times ten, considering that Marisol had so many responsibilities to the land itself and all its people.
I have mixed feelings about the other characters. There are very few fleshed-out characters in this book, but in a sense this fits with the fairy tale atmosphere of the book. I did like the Master and the Grand Seneschal, who are the most prominent characters aside from Mirasol; and one of my favourite thing about them is that they were nothing like my first impression of them had been. I wish Mirasol had interacted more with the other members of the Circle, because I have a preference for stories with a large cast of supporting characters.
The story itself was extremely well-paced. It starts right in the middle of things, when Mirasol has already been Chalice for a few months and the new Master is coming home for the first time in years. Only later it goes back to explain how she was chosen as the new Chalice, and what she did in the meantime. Those flashbacks and flashforwards are sometimes annoying, because it’s like when someone is telling you a story and they are like “…and that’s where I’ve been for the past week, but I forgot to tell you that the month before this other thing happened, and now I’m going to do that other thing…” and you wish they’d sorted out their thoughts beforehand and told the story in order.
On the flipside, I’ve been in a reading slump and it’s hard to get into a book when the summary gives away the first part of the story. If Chalice had been in chronological order, I would have spent the first part of the book knowing that the old Master would die, knowing that Marisol would be appointed as the new Chalice, knowing that the new Master wouldn’t be human, and being annoyed that the summary had already told me about it all. So the flashbacks are a necessary evil.
I really love fairy tale retellings and fairy tale-inspired stories, and this is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Definitely a recommended read, and I’m looking forward to reading more of McKinley’s books in the future. It’s almost a pity that this book is a standalone. The ending is perfect, because it lets me free to imagine what happened in Willowlands afterwards, so I wouldn’t want a direct sequel; but I’d love another book set in the same world.