Robin McKinley: Chalice (2008)

Beekeeper Marisol has been chosen as the new Chalice, destined to stand beside the Master and mix the ceremonial brews that hold the Willowlands together. But the relationship between Chalice and Master has always been tumultuous, and the new Master is unlike any before him.

My favourite fantasy authors are Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman. I’m not such an avid fantasy reader but I think when it comes to genre writing, psychological crime and high fantasy are my favourites. Of course I was intrigued every time I saw Robin McKinley mentioned but what really pushed me to read her was when I saw the review of Chalice on BookRain’s blog and that she compared her to Julliet Marillier.

I wasn’t disappointed, Chalice is such a lovely book, one of the most beautiful fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s like the honeycombs it evokes, with every sentence fitting in its right place and making it a finely constructed whole.

Marisol the beekeeper and woodkeeper has become Chalice of the demesne of Willowsland. Never has there been a honey Chalice. And never has there been a Chalice who hasn’t been an apprentice before. The Chalice is the second most important person of the Circle, the entity who rules over the ritual part of the demesne, responsible for its spiritual and physical well-being.  At the head of the circle is the Master, followed by his Chalice.

Usually there is a bloodline for both Master and Chalice but in this case, the former Master and Chalice have died a violent death and since there was no heir, the next in line, the master’s brother, a Fire priest, had to be called back. He isn’t human anymore, his touch can burn a human to the bones, his face is black with red, flickering eyes.

Marisol, the Chalice and the Fire Priest are both unprepared and struggle to find their way in this highly ritualized environment. The Chalice studies as many books as she can find, looks up on ceremonies and meanings and at the same time invents new rituals, helped by her bees and the earthlines who speak to her.

Not everybody is happy about a pair like these two and so the Overlord, the political head of the demesne, wants the Master to leave and hand over his place to an outblood heir.

Marisol knows that this is the worst that could happen to the demesne. That would mean turmoil and chaos and she hopes it will never happen. But whether he can stay or not, will be decided in a duel.

What I loved so much about this book is the atmosphere. Sweet and floating, like the scent of beeswax candles. The descriptions are beautiful and following Marisol’s journey has something enchanting and almost hypnotic. The world building is exquisite. I was there in Willowsland the whole time. And Marisol is such a great character, so real. She is very insecure and has to find her way in an hostile environment but her strength and her love for her home guide her. I liked how she lived, on her own, outside of the Great House or the village, only with her bees whom she treats like pets. She learns about the tradition of Chalice but because she never underwent a proper training she dares to invent new ways which she combines with the tradition. Every Chalice mixes ritual cups but Marisol adds honey to hers. Even before she was Chalice she knew how to heal with honey, knew that every variety has its own properties.

Chalice is a magical story, a love story as well as the description of a land in chaos that is slowly brought back to peace by a heroine who can accept her weakness and trusts herself completely.

I’m going to read more of Robin McKinley. I’m not sure which one I will read next, maybe Beauty or Sunshine. Any recommendations? Which is your favourite Robin McKinley book?