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Bewildering Stories

Robin McKinley, Chalice

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Author: Robin McKinley
Publisher: G. P. Putnam, 2008
Length: 263 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-24616-0
What do all fairy tales have in common? They are the triumph of the underdog. The youngest son, the stepdaughter, the poor waif, the penniless tailor all climb to glory and justly earned reward.

Of course, anyone can see these tales are purest wish fulfillment. In reality, no seven dwarves rescued the abandoned Snow White. The wicked stepmother triumphed, as the wicked usually do in the real world, and poor Cinderella slept in the ashes until her hair was the same gray. That’s life, not fairy tale.

Robin McKinley’s Chalice is a sweet fairy tale about a barefoot beekeeping maiden raised to sudden high estate. Little Mirasol is magically selected to step into the shoes of the old Chalice. The role of Chalice is a keep-everything-magically-humming second in command to the lord of the manor.

Only, no one trained or wanted Mirasol in the role. She’s sweet and willing but naïve and frankly ignorant, so she has trouble. Not to mention that in the reign of the previous dissolute lord matters in the demesne went seriously awry.

So there’s a new lord of the manor chosen, the younger brother of the deceased. But the heir has to come back from the fire (literally, since he was training to be a priest of Fire, and is already less fleshly than flame). What he comes back to proves to be a frying pan. The ambitious Overlord has designs on the estate, and sends a usurper to challenge the young lord and to wed the new Chalice, Mirasol.

Only, Mirasol has drawn close to the struggling true heir, and she and her bees have something to say in the succession crisis.

It’s a sweet story, suitable for young adult readers, and follows the classic model of the good underdog triumphing over the powerful baddie.

I wonder, however, how interesting younger readers will find the story. Very little immediate happens in this tale; just about everything is told in Mirasol’s head, through reminiscences, flashbacks, ruminations and so forth. We’re wrapped in thick cotton wool, and the lack of action and interior monologues distance the reader from any emotional connection with McKinley’s story and heroine. At least it did for me.

So next time, Ms. McKinley, let’s try to stick to just what’s happening right now in your story, please? The past perfect tense usually puts me to sleep.

I want to commend the artists (Cory and Catska Ench) on the book’s beautiful Pre-Raphaelite style cover art. Lovely work. Tell us where we can buy the poster, please!

Copyright © 2009 by Danielle L. Parker

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