Maybe this is an odd choice for the first Robin McKinley book I review, when I’ve already expressed what a fan I am of her books. But while I’ll probably review Beauty and Rose Daughtereventually, Chalice is, I think, a better work than either of the others. Not because of the storyline, but because of the sheer beauty of the world she weaves, and the originality.
Robin McKinley’s favorite fairy tale, like mine, is Beauty and the Beast. So it’s not surprising that after her debut Beauty which followed the fairy tale quite closely, she decided to write another, more original version of the story with Rose Daughter. But with Chalice, she manages to throw all preconceptions of the fairy tale out the window altogether, constructing an entirely new version of this beloved story.
I read this book aloud to my sisters, once, and the reactions of my household cover all ranges, I think. One of my sisters grew tired of it within a hundred pages or so, because really, the story takes a very long time to get started. The descriptions of scenery, of Chalice’s (beauty’s) bees, of the physical form of the Master (the beast), of the rituals which they must perform, take up the largest bulk of the story. If you removed everything else and simply told the sequence of events, it would almost definitely not last very long—maybe 30 pages, maybe less.
My other sister flitted in and out of the room while I read, and when my first sister was just losing interest, my second sister demanded that I continue reading. Then our mother came into the room and sat down to listen to the last 50 pages (yes, my throat became very hoarse) before promptly taking the book away to read the whole thing through herself. As soon as she was done, my second sister took the book away for herself to read it all the way through. My first sister, who was the only one who had heard the whole book read aloud, admitted that it “wasn’t that bad” (which coming from her can be quite a compliment) though she adamantly insisted that McKinley could have done with less elaborate descriptions.
And yet I find that this book is all the more beautiful for being the way that it is. The descriptions of the land and the people that live on the land are so much a part of this book that there simply isn’t a single description that goes to waste. It all serves to paint the picture of the present, the past, and the sort of future that lies in store for the Chalice and her Master when the story comes to a close. It lets you feel Chalice’s anxieties at her own ignorance like your own; it lets you be there in her shoes, making her mistakes with her so that when you learn that it was a mistake, it is as jarring to you as the reader as it is to Chalice.
I would give this book a 9.5/10.