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Chalice    by Robin McKinley order for
by Robin McKinley
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In this magical realm, a Master and a Chalice govern each demesne, assisted by their Circle, which includes a Grand Seneschal and a Prelate. Willowland's Master was wild and he and his Chalice died suddenly in a fire. This crisis has plucked Mirasol out of her quiet life - as a healer, a woodskeeper, and a beekeeper - to be the new Chalice, but without having anyone to train her 'to feel the pull of the land'. Unhappy, struggling, and feeling that her Circle - and especially the Grand Seneschal - despises her, Mirasol does her best to learn her role from books and to heal the very unsettled demesne. Unlike most Chalices who use water or wine, Mirasol mixes honey into the cups her role requires her to prepare.

When the dead Master's younger brother Liapnir had objected to his wild ways and lack of care for the demesne, the Master had given him to the Priests of Fire seven years before. He had already crossed to the third level and 'third level Elemental priests can no longer live among ordinary humans.' But since a change of bloodline is very disruptive to a demesne, Liapnir comes home, though it will not be easy for him, if possible at all. Weary, radiating heat, and struggling to handle himself, the new Master - whose previously brown eyes are now 'red, flickering like fire around the black pupils' - accidentally burns Mirasol to the bone as she hands him the welcome cup. Of course, the burn results in gossip, people wondering about his humanity.

Getting to know Liapnir as a good and gentle man, Mirasol reassures him, 'You are more human than you fear', and they work well together. As Chalice and Master grow into their roles, establish better control, and develop a warm relationship, it becomes clear that the Overlord plots to replace the Master with his own candidate - something Mirasol knows will be disastrous for the demesne, but she feels powerless to prevent it. She does what she can, with help from the Master - and from the hives, and it is the bees who ultimately win the day and give Mirasol her heart's desire.

Though a little slow setting the scene and establishing reader interest, Chalice, a magical romantic fantasy fueled by fire and honey, steadily builds the suspense all the way to an extraordinary conclusion. Robin McKinley's unusual plot resolution took me completely by surprise. Don't miss this engrossing tale.

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