I think I was fourteen when I read my first Robin McKinley book: The Hero and the Crown. That and The Blue Sword are her two finest, I believe. Both are set in mythical Damar, and both throb with the timeless pulse of a strong story well told. Not long later, I read The Outlaws of Sherwood, her retelling of the Robin Hood story.
Since then, I think I've read just about everything else McKinley has written, and when I was browsing amazon and found this new novel, I didn't hesitate to add it to my wish list.
Clint got it for my birthday, and I settled down into its pages quickly.
Chalice tells the tale of a land where demesnes are rule by Masters, who are aided by a Circle of nine. One of these is the Chalice, the one whose duty is keeping the earthlines in harmony and keeping the members of the demesne unified and bound to the land. Most Chalices are tied to their calling with liquids such as water or wine, or occasionally milk or even blood. None before Mirasol has been connected with honey.
But she was a beekeeper before she was Chalice, and she was called to be Chalice after the former Chalice and Master died of violence. When she becomes Chalice, she feels even more clearly the cries of the earthlines, cries which have caused earthquakes and fallow fields and made animals act strangely.
Mirasol founders through her first few months as Chalice, having no training or apprenticeship and no help from the others of the Circle. Even worse, the new Master is an Elemental Priest, recalled from his tutelage of the Priests of Fire, and he is more fire than human. His touch burns her hand when they first meet, and yet despite this ominous portent, it seems that Mirasol is the only person in the demesne willing to accept him as the true Master.
Over time, their friendship begins to grow until the day, with the help of bees and honey, Mirasol and the Master have to fend off the predations of the Overlord who wants to replace the master with a man of his choosing.
Other reviewers have complained that this novel is slow, that it seems McKinley has tried too hard to stretch a short story into a novel and that in such stretching, she has thinned her tale to a breaking point. I will admit, there were several times in the first fifty pages that I rolled my eyes and wanted to quit.
But I am nothing if not loyal, and for an author like McKinley, I am willing to wait things out. In the twenty years of our writer/reader relationship, she has never disappointed me. By page 100 or so, the story had definitely picked up, and all the (many) details of this land and its rules had been established. At that point, the relationship between Mirasol and her Master became more interesting, more ripe with potential, and the looming conflict with the Heir chosen by the Overlord more ominous.
For someone who has never read a McKinley novel, I would not recommend starting here. Instead, work your way in more easily with one of the Damar novels or The Outlaws of Sherwood. Then read Spindle's End and Deerskin. Then come back to this one.
It is a slow read, but it is very, very sweet. And you'll find yourself wanting to return to that world once it is done and savor it again.