A really beautiful story , well told and lyrical. Often when a book is classified as young adult, the characters are teenagers and the story is told from their perspective. This book is more of a fairy tale, without a sense of an age of the players, although clearly adult and while reading it I didn't feel as if I were reading a story meant for younger readers. The book itself is also beautiful, with illustrations of bees through the text.
Through the first three quarters of this novel, I was very much enjoying it. It seemed a curious throwback in McKinley's cannon, more akin to The Hero and the Crown than more recent works like Sunshine or Dragonhaven. It was again in a sort of distant third-person limited replete with lyrical imagery, and very much like The Hero and the Crown it completely ignored the convention of telling its story linearly. It was also set in a beautiful imaginary world that felt small but deep -- geographically it covered maybe 50 square miles (minuscule for a fantasy novel) but it felt like there was history there going back hundreds of years.
I loved the political system McKinley imagined, magically tied to the land and thus chosen by the land itself. Again very much like The Hero and the Crown, very little about the setting is ever spelled out for the reader: we see the role of the Chalice because Mirasol spends the novel trying to embody it, but the Master, the Grand Seneschal, and the rest of the circle are left in shadow. All we know about them is what we are able to glean from the corner of our eyes and our common sense knowledge of language (the titles are, after all, descriptive). I found this refreshing; it's wearying at times to read modern fantasy novels that spend page after page lovingly detailing their world but without actually using that world in their plot. None of the Circle had a major role, so giving the reader a prosaic job description for each of them would have broken the point of view (Mirasol knows what they do, so she doesn't need to think about their day to day tasks at any point) and would therefore have been pure indulgence on the author's part (a way of saying "look at what I made!").
And of course, like all McKinley novels, it is a Beauty and the Beast tale.
Unfortunately, while in The Hero and the Crown all the digressions and flashbacks subtly build to a climax that is moving and wondrous, in Chalice the ending feels abrupt, almost anti-climactic. Just as we are fitting the characters into their world and feeling the tension starting to rise toward some final showdown, the showdown is over and we are given a happily ever after that doesn't feel deserved. Mirasol never has to make a hard choice like Aerin does, her beast is magically transformed back to a man, and we are left saying "huh?" It really feels as though McKinley simply didn't know how to end her story, so she pasted some images together and sent it off to her publisher.
Still, none of McKinley's writing is ever unpleasant to read, and even if the ending fell flat, the rest of the novel was very much McKinley in top form. Like all McKinley novels it also leaves the reader wanting a sequel, wanting many sequels really, so we can peer longer into all the delightful little corners we glimpsed here. A sequel is highly unlikely, given McKinley's track record, but that craving indicates how good a writer she is, even when the novel isn't her best.
Mirasol is a beekeeper who recently became the Chalice of her demesne. She and the rest of the Circle must deal with each other and the new Master of the demesne as he returns from exile to the elemental priesthood of Fire. Mirasol must deal with her new role and the interference of the Overlord. The story is told through Mirasol's point of view some information provided in flashbacks. Through most of the book there is not a big driving conflict but is mostly just how Mirasol deals with the other members of the Circle and learning about being Chalice. Her relationship with the Master develops as she gets to know him.
Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors and I expected to like this book quite a bit. I did like the book, but the reading level was a bit lower than I am used to as it is a young adult book. The characters could have been fleshed out a bit more and I would have like a more straightforward timeline instead of starting in the middle and using flashbacks. It was a quick read for me but I enjoyed it.
This is a typical McKinley book: start in the middle and work your way out from there. If you have the patience to follow a story before you understand all the details, it's a very good read. Like many of her books, it is full of rabbit trails and flashbacks, and everything ties together at the end. I kept my copy for a 2nd read-through; I expect it will be even better now that I know what's going on.
Basic plot: After the death of the previous Master and Chalice, Mirasol is chosen as the new Chalice even though she has not apprenticed and has no idea what she's doing. The position of Chalice is not merely ceremonial; she can heal the land after earthquakes, bind land, people, and animals, heal, and a variety of other things. If she had been trained and knew how. The new Master also has problems adjusting to his new role. He had been sent away to become a priest of fire and is no longer fully human. He's trying his best, but he is not really physically able. The two of them have to figure out how to heal the land after the last Master ruined it, while dealing with an evil Overseer who is not helping any.
A couple notes for the reader:
A demesne (dih-MEYN or -MEEN) is an estate, district, or region.
There is a LOT of mention of bees. Big, black bees in mighty swarms. They're the good guys.