Robin McKinley is a masterful storyteller. She is on my list of authors whose books I read as soon as they are published - I never even bother reading the reviews or even the cover flap - I just flip to the first page, full of anticipation, and start reading. And I'm never disappointed.
This YA fantasy novel is set in a fictional country in which the rulers and their circle are connected to the land in a concrete, visceral way - particularly the person who is known as the Chalice. Our heroine, Mirasol, is a beekeeper who suddenly finds herself thrust into the position as Willowlands' new Chalice after a fatal accident befalls the previous Master and Chalice. She is woefully unprepared. The previous chalice had no apprentice, and neither did the Master. She feels inadequate and ignorant, yet she somehow manages to rise to the occasion as crises present themselves.
Matters are complicated by the new Master, the previous Master's younger brother, who was sent away seven years earlier to become a Priest of Fire. Now he is barely human, and his own circle as well as the inhabitants of Willowlands find him a fearsome figure, and are unwilling to put their trust in him. Yet Mirasol, wiser than she realizes, senses in him a kind heart that, given time, might enable them to heal the land. However, the Overlord has other plans, and the apprentice Master he sends is someone she can barely stand, and she fears the land will not survive such a Master. But what is a simple beekeeper to do?
I loved the way McKinley simply throws the reader into the story - it might be confusing to those readers who must have everything explained to them immediately. But for me, as the facts and strange customes of Willowlands slowly unfolded themselves to my understanding, it echoed the confusion of Mirasol as she is thrust into such a complex, overwhelming situation. As always, the characters shine, the plot is a joy to follow, and the imagery is vivid. My only problem with the book was that it ended too soon. McKinley always keeps me wanting more. I hope she'll return to this fascinating world in future books.
Chalice by Robin McKinley (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008)
Em's Bookshelf: "This is the first Robin McKinley book that I've read and I loved it. With its magical elements and its down-to-earth heroine, Chalice is one of the best fairy tales I've read this year."