Desert Isle Keeper
When the land and the people are closely tied, political instability leads to literal instability; earthquakes, crop failures, fire, and storm. Mirasol’s job as Chalice is to support the Master of the estate, called Willowlands, in keeping the land peaceful and prosperous. However, the previous Master and Chalice left Willowlands in a disastrous state; the Chalice never apprenticed Mirasol, leaving her completely untrained, and the Master banished his younger brother and heir to train with the priests of Fire. Like Mirasol, he’s untrained; worse, he’s unhuman. How can Mirasol save Willowlands from complete collapse?
Chalice is a masterclass in setting, with barely any direct exposition. Just as the writer of a contemporary novel doesn’t explain to us what a president does or what a cell phone is, McKinley treats readers like members of her world and lets us work out the roles and rules through her characters’ experiences. So much fantasy fiction is set at a moment of overthrowing a world order that it’s refreshing to read a book about ordinary people trying to hold things together. The world of Chalice is feudal, and while the Willowlands is a sizeable estate, it and its master are below an Overlord, who himself is below the King. Not only do you see the hierarchical distance above Mirasol and the Master, but also below, as Mirasol regrets the isolation triggered by her elevation from ordinary beekeeper to Chalice. All of this is echoed in the deliberately formal and archaic prose, which helps maintain the immersive medieval atmosphere.
The story is told in third-person limited over the shoulder of Mirasol. I loved her as a heroine who reacts to her lack of training in a satisfying way. She researches. She experiments. She works hard. She listens to the land and her instincts, and when all else fails, she simply buckles down and grits it out. I like that she is unique (no previous Chalice’s medium is honey) but not in the exaggerated Greatest Of All Time way that seems to pervade fantasy.
As for the romance – this story is a fantasy first, but part of what makes it so satisfying is its ending, which includes a romantic HEA. There are shades of a Beast hero archetype in the Master, but he’s sad and gentle rather than raving. That’s my favorite interpretation of this type.
Genre-wise, I’d call this fantasy with strong romantic elements, although it’s listed on Amazon as YA, which I presume is for marketing purposes. I would certainly lend it to a teen fantasy fan whose reading level is up to its prose – it’s much less brutally violent and sexually explicit than most YA these days – and I personally think fantasy is a better classification because of the older characters (they read in their twenties) and more adult plot concerns.
Chalice is one of the richest and most sophisticated fantasy novels on my keeper shelf. Every time I take it down, it’s as immersive as the first time, and it’s simply a joy to read.