I have been reading Robin McKinley's books for more than 20 years, and she usually manages to surprise me. Everything I've read of hers in recent years seems to have been a reframing of a fairy tale - Snow White & Rose Red, Beauty & the Beast, etc. - exploring the stories of the characters, the underlying relationships and emotions that are glossed over in the superficial telling we're familiar with. I've enjoyed McKinley's reworking of those tales, but I've also been somewhat frustrated by the lack of original stories from her. I fully expected Chalice
to be more of the same, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be pure McKinley invention. (I could be wrong - but if this is based on an existing fairy tale, it's from some culture I'm completely unfamiliar with.)
The story takes place in a tightly circumscribed world where the land is divided into demesnes each governed by a Circle - a group of specialists each trained to perform their role in managing, in part by a kind of magical interaction, the husbandry of land, forest, livestock, etc. The two who hold the highest positions - the Master, and his Chalice - act together to integrate and balance the work of the other Circle members for the good of their demesne. But Circle members are human, and just as prone to flaws and excesses as any other person. In Chalice
, a dissolute Master and weak Chalice have left their land in disarray after they are both killed in a fire. The remaining Circle members are forced to send for the Master's younger brother, who left Willowlands years before to be trained as a Priest of Fire. They also use a method like dowsing to seek among the people of the demesne for the woman who will be the new Chalice.
(TO BE FINISHED LATER)