How Do I Love Robin McKinley? Let Me Count the Ways: A Review of Chalice

Oh how I adore Robin McKinley. I discovered her books at a young age, and they were essential allies for a highly sensitive girl child growing up in a rough-and-tumble, fundamentalist Christian, Midwestern-with-roots-in-the-South family. I was continuously out of my element, and McKinley’s books almost all involve young women finding themselves out of their element and needing to learn how to swim, fast. I could identify with these young women. They were intelligent, but not able to understand all of the cruelty or lying and intrigue that surrounded them. They didn’t feel strong, they didn’t feel up to surviving their world, much less saving it; yet they persevered, and extraordinary things happened as a result. McKinley’s books gave me hope that if I continued to live from my heart, I would survive, and good things would happen for me.

To this day, reading McKinley’s books still fills me with a sense of hope and comfort, just like when I was a scared, sad little girl. So I was thrilled to run across Chalice in the new books section at the library; it had been a while since I found something by McKinley that I hadn’t read yet! Cause for celebration!

And Chalice didn’t disappoint. I loved it; I read it in the evenings after dinner was all done, tucked in to my bed in my jammies with a cup of home-made hot cocoa made with milk and honey and cocoa powder (how appropriate, given all the milk and honey in the book . . . ). Mmmm, bookish bliss.

So: the publisher’s description:

As the newly appointed Chalice, Mirasol is the most important member of the Masteras Circle. It is her duty to bind the Circle, the land and its people together with their new Master. But the new Master of Willowlands is a Priest of Fire, only drawn back into the human world by the sudden death of his brother. No one knows if it is even possible for him to live amongst his people. Mirasol wants the Master to have his chance, but her only training is as a beekeeper. How can she help settle their demesne during these troubled times and bind it to a Priest of Fire, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone?

Robin McKinley weaves a captivating tale that reveals the healing power of duty and honor, love and honey.

I will begin with my only reservation about the loveliness of the book, so that I can then gush about how much I really loved it. Few books are flawless, but Chalice was close. There were a few times when Mirasol was musing about her difficulties in the hierarchy of the demesne where my brain started to melt. McKinley created a world with a very detailed social setup, and so there were some passages that dealt with that structure. In these sections the writing got a little dense–or maybe I’m just dense, who knows? In any case, there were a few parts I had to muddle through, but I didn’t mind.

But! Other than that, I adored it. Although I don’t think I’ll ever love a McKinley book with the passionate intensity that I carry for The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, I’ve loved everything I read by her, and Chalice was no exception. What Chalice had going for it the most? Mirasol keeps bees, and her gift as chalice deals a lot with honey. The bees play a vital role in the plot. I am fascinated by honey bees, they really do seem sort of otherworldly to me, so this supernatural treatment made me shiver with delight. Plus, one of my major fascinations (after novels) is natural healing, and honey plays a big role in herbalism . . . so you know, honey = magic is pretty clear to me.

I also love how the land is almost a character itself; it is described as sentient, and Mirasol communicates with it, as does The Master. That makes perfect sense to me, and to find it in a yummy novel makes me all sorts of hippie pagan happy.

I love the hesitant, sweet, impossible bond that grows between Mirasol and the Master; how you can see that they want to know each other, to be close to each other, but don’t feel like they can really do anything about it or even quite admit it, considering he’s all barely-corporeal and has a tendency to burn everything he touches to the bone unless he concentrates really, really hard.

And I love how McKinley’s good guys are so really truly good. Not in a Mary Sue sort of way, but in a they-have-such-sweet-hearts-and-are-so-honest-and-they-do-their-best-and-I-want-to-invite-them-over-for-tea-and-hug-them-and-be-their-BFF sort of way.

(The rest of this review contains almost spoilers. I don’t give away the exact events, but I do give you a really good idea of how it all pans out. Just so you know.)

And then there’s this thing McKinley does in almost all of her books. The heroine finds herself faced with an impossible task; she knows, from the beginning, that she cannot do it, that it can’t be done. She is usually beset with all sorts of self-doubt. And then she packs up her pony, puts on her traveling clothes and goes and does it anyway. And of course it’s not enough, and the heroine stands on the brink of the destruction of something she loves, and then sudden inspiration from out of the blue causes her to do something that totally doesn’t make sense, and the supernatural descends and saves the day, and everything is utterly changed in a sweeping moment of unprecedented magic.

I don’t usually like endings like this; they feel sort of random to me, like the author backed her characters in to a corner and didn’t know how to get them out except by an act of god. But somehow when McKinley does it, it works for me. And I think I’ve figured out why. I think it’s because, in McKinley’s novels, the supernatural intervention isn’t pure chance. The supernatural is responding to the heroine, as it would not respond to just anyone. Magic comes and saves the day because of the heroine’s desperate love and willingness to put her life and sanity on the line– not because she’s guaranteed to succeed, not because she will ever be celebrated for her brave deeds, but because her heart won’t let her do differently. She knows she will fail, but she acts anyway, because she loves her country/people/family/lover/land too much to sit back and weep while it is destroyed.

This is huge to me. It’s not about martyrdom, it’s about bottomless love and the intense desire to do all that she can, regardless of the outcome. And the universe responds to her by toppling a mountain, or by bringing her back from the brink of death, or by sending a pack of dogs to give her courage, or a hive of bees to save the day . . . and when McKinley does it I cry and make girlie noises and put my hand to my heart and sigh. Then I close the book and hug it and ask god to please bless Robin McKinley because she’s the awesomest. Amen.

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