Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley's name always catches my eye at the bookstore, but try as I might I've never really fallen in love with her the way so many of my friends have. I didn't enjoy Sunshine very much, and while I found Deerskin to be an enjoyable book, I can't say that it was one that I'll pick up again and again either.

Of course, it was her name that jumped out at me when I saw Chalice at the bookstore too, but it was the beautiful painting on the cover that convinced me it was worth at least reading the inside flap. This didn't seem to be yet another fairy tale retelling, but instead a new world with it's own magic and characters. That finally convinced me to give it a try.

The highest praise that I have for Chalice is that the book takes all the things that I disliked about Sunshine and does them perfectly. It is again a first person narrator, but Mirasol is likable and interesting. She has important things to say and new observations about her surroundings. She learns and changes as the story progresses, but still retains the things that make her a good person and an admirable heroine.

Another thing that Sunshine attempted but didn't quite manage was resisting exposition about the world the story takes place in. Rae spoke matter-of-factly about the things in her life that we would find different and strange, because she didn't find them different or strange. When you use a first person narrator who is supposedly telling their story to a contemporary audience, then they wouldn't explain things that might confuse us because to them it's normal. If I were writing my own life's story right now, I wouldn't stop to explain or describe what a blog is, or email. These things are part of our world and it's taken for granted that everybody knows what they are. If I grew up in a world where man-eating ferns were a way of life, I wouldn't stop to say, "Now, the ferns...they ate people." I would just say, "I almost got caught by a fern that night."

In Chalice, this particular literary style is done exactly as it should be. While we get most of the information about what a Chalice is and how the system works, we're never treated to a history lesson or a flat explanation. Mirasol talks about listening to the "earthlines" but we're never told what they are, who can hear them, or how they work. We find out what we need to do when the earthlines don't behave as they should, and cause a catastrophe.

We learn what a Chalice does because Mirasol is new to the job and afraid she isn't doing it correctly. But because Mirasol is our narrator, we really only learn about the role of the Chalice, and a little about The Master because they are directly linked. But there is an entire political structure, a Circle of people with titles and tasks, that we never really learn about because it doesn't concern Mirasol at the time. What does Talisman do? Or Weatherauger? On the one hand, I desperately want to know, but on the other, if the book had told me it would have rang false.

The story itself is compelling, and it moves at a very fast pace. It isn't told in a strictly linear fashion, because it is more of a memoir, so it jumps from one occasion to another depending on what Mirasol would be remembering or trying to explain. This means that we start with a bit of mystery, some intrigue, and some brilliantly planted moments that come back again and again as the story progresses.

The only qualm I might have had with the book is that is very much a love letter to honey and beekeeping, which I'm sure some people will greatly enjoy. Since I personally don't like the taste of honey, that didn't grab me the way it was probably meant to. But, I have to say, the descriptions of the honey itself are so vivid and enticing that it made me wish that I loved it as much as McKinley seems to. I think that's a testament to the writing.

Chalice is easily the best book by McKinley I've ever read, and one of the best books I've read in a very long time. I hope that she returns to the world, the politics, and the magic system that she's created here so that I can learn more about it, even if she doesn't return to this particular set of characters.