Robin McKinley debuted with a fleshed-out retelling of "Beauty and the Beast," and later followed it up with ANOTHER retelling.
And after a few books about dragons and vampires, McKinley returns to her old territory -- she spins up a vaguely medieval tale of a woodland beauty and a charred "beast" entirely out of her own imagination. McKinley's sumptuous prose and her depiction of a "living" land add an extra dimension to a straightforward little love story that drips with sweetness.
Some months ago, the decadent Master of Willowlands and his Chalice were killed in a fire. The new Chalice is Mirasol, whose duty is to fill ceremonial cups and help bind the land.
But then the late Master's little brother arrives from the priests of Fire -- charred black and no longer entirely human. Mirasol is determined to do the best job she can for the new Master, when she isn't tending a woodland cottage covered in bees. Unfortunately the land is still unsettled despite her joint efforts with the Master, especially since his strange behavior frightens his people.
In the course of her duty, Mirasol soon gets to know her new Master -- he's quiet, kind, worried about burning people, and confused by the world he had almost forgotten. But as he struggles to keep his land balanced, the Overlord begins to scheme to put a new Master in Willowlands -- one that will do whatever he wishes. With her role as Chalice and her power over bees, Mirasol must find a way to save her beloved Master...
You wouldn't think that such a slender novel could have such a richly imagined world, where metaphysical bonds link the Master and Chalice to the very land itself. Not only does Robin McKinley conjure such a world in "Chalice," but she also wrought an intricate web of politics and tradition around the ritual roles. Poor Mirasol, trying to navigate her new role.
And McKinley's prose is as sweet and thick as Mirasol's honey ("the great windows were still twilight grey..."), but filled with a slightly bittersweet feeling. And she crams the novel with rural splendour -- trees, little cottages, old dusty books -- as well as anything having to do with bees and beekeeping. When Mirasol is with her books in the woodright, McKinley's writing takes on an exquisitely mystical edge (albeit a quieter one than her Chalice duties).
But once the Overlord's little plan comes into play, McKinley also interweaves a sense of dread and foreboding, which gets worse as the story creeps toward the inevitable clash. If there's a flaw in the story, it's that the bees serve a slightly deus-ex-machinesque function for the Master.
However, the heart of this story is the growing love story between two young people who are unsure how to do their jobs, and fear that they are failing. Mirasol and the Master (whose name is only revealed late in the book) are wonderfully realistic characters, and Mirasol's stumbles and struggles make her seem like a totally realistic country girl suddenly given a great task.
"Chalice" is the sort of story that Robin McKinley has penned before, but the land-mysticism and lush prose make it entirely unique. Definitely a must-read..