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Literature / Chalice

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Chalice is a 2008 novel by Robin McKinley, set in the demesne of Willowlands. Willowlands' Master and his Chalice have recently died under less than pleasant circumstances, and the late Master's younger brother has been called back from his initiation into the priesthood of elemental Fire to take over as the demesne's new Master - to some opposition, since becoming a priest of Fire has left him no longer entirely human.


Mirasol was a simple beekeeper before she was unexpectedly called upon to take over as the demesne's new Chalice, in which position she must somehow make the transition to a new and not-quite-human Master work smoothly in spite of her own inexperience in the role. If she can't, the consequences will affect the entire demesne, which is already in an unstable condition thanks to the previous Master.

Unfortunately, not very many people - including Mirasol herself - have a lot of confidence in her ability to adequately fill the role of Chalice. Even fewer are willing to put any faith in their strange new Master. And if Mirasol and the new Master can't make themselves secure enough in their roles as the demesne's leaders, there are people ready and waiting to take advantage of their weakness to seize control - even if it causes the Willowlands to tear itself apart in the process.


Chalice contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: Lacking the benefit of an apprenticeship to teach her how to be Chalice, Mirasol has to make up a lot of things as she goes along... which results in some unprecedented accomplishments, including transforming the Master back to his fully human form.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: As usual for McKinley's work. Mirasol doesn't have her own pony, but has an established affection for the House's ponies and handles them well.
  • Badass Normal: Despite being apparently the only Court title of the twelve to come with no magical powers, the Grand Seneschal is still the third-ranking member of the Court because he's the one that actually handles the day-to-day administering of the demesne.
  • Bee-Bee Gun: Mirasol's power as Chalice causes her bees to behave in some very unusual ways. A massive swarm of them kills Horuld at the book's climax, and what's left when they're done is not very pretty.
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  • Contrived Clumsiness: The Overlord uses a very malicious form of fake clumsiness to set the Master up for a Morton's Fork. The Master's power over Fire makes his touch hot enough to severely burn a person if he doesn't have the opportunity to prepare himself and rein in his power; the Overlord "trips" within reach of the Master, forcing him to choose between catching and involuntarily burning his liege (an insult) or letting him fall (also an insult).
  • Cool Horse: Generally played around with throughout the story. The previous Master was fond of fast, fancy, high-strong horses, while both Mirasol and the current Master favor fat, staid, entirely unimpressive ponies. On the other hand, those ponies prove to be extremely steady and dependable when their riders need them to be, which is exactly why they favor them in the first place.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Packed to the brim with them. There are enough vague references in this book to fuel an entire series of novels in this setting.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Inverted. A local legend tells that if a woman sleeps on a certain hill, she will dream of the man she's going to marry. Mirasol tries it when she first learns that she might have to marry Horuld for the sake of the demesne, but instead of dreaming of the man she will marry, she dreams of the man she would have married if she'd remained a simple woodskeeper instead of becoming Chalice. Later in the book, she falls asleep on the same hill again because she's just so tired...and dreams of a swarm of bees taking her away from a very grand wedding with someone she's afraid to recognize. Which is pretty much what happens with Horuld, the second man she would have married had things gone differently.
    • She did see the man she would marry the first night on Listening Hill. The magic might have decided that she didn't need a prophetic dream if he was going to show up in person.
  • Elemental Powers:
    • The new Master is a priest of Elemental Fire and can not only control that element, he's partly composed of it.
    • Every Chalice has an elemental affinity for a liquid through which they employ their power. It's normally water or wine, but rarer cases are mentioned of Chalices who work best through more unusual liquids such as brine, milk, and blood. Mirasol's power works through honey.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Most of the members of the Circle are only known by their titles, including the Master and the Grand Seneschal. Mirasol only learns the latter's actual namenote  at the very end of the book; the Master's original name is mentioned partway through the storynote , but seems to be regarded as something belonging to his former identity, and not even the narration ever calls him by it. Played for a moment of humor midway through the story when it turns out that the Grand Seneschal doesn't know Mirasol's personal name either; the first time she mentions it, he's left briefly wondering if "mirasol" is some kind of slang he's not familiar with.
  • Fisher King: Each demesne has not only a Fisher King Master, but an entire Fisher Court composed of twelve members: Master, Chalice, Grand Seneschal, Prelate, and the "minor circle" composed of the Clearseer, Keepfast, Landsman, Oakstaff, Sunbrightener, Talisman, Weatheraugur, and (presumably) an eighth member whose title isn't mentioned anywhere in the book. If the Master, Chalice, and the rest of the court don't work together smoothly or properly live up to their roles, the entire demesne suffers in all manner of very tangible ways, from unusually skittish livestock and poorly-producing crops all the way up to wildfires and earthquakes. Prior to the start of the book, Willowlands had suffered under an unfit Master for seven years and the lack of any Master at all for several more months, so things are in a bad state by the time the new Master arrives.
  • Food Porn: Mirasol's power works primarily through honey, which she collects from her own beehives, and the book features several lovingly detailed descriptions of different kinds of honey and its various colors, flavors, and uses.
    And all of them tasted glorious on bread.
  • First-Name Basis: After all the hue and cry is mostly over with, the Grand Seneschal shares his personal name with the Master and Mirasol. He also tells them the nickname that his parents and the former Grand Seneschal he apprenticed under called him by, but Mirasol doesn't quite feel comfortable using a nickname for him without "specific and exact permission."
  • Heroic Suicide: Subverted. The Master is all set to throw himself on his challenger's sword during their Trial by Combat, in the hopes that his voluntary sacrifice will keep the land from tearing itself apart during the transition to a new (and foreign) Master. However, Mirasol and her enormous swarm of bees object very strenuously to his plan.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: When the Overlord appoints a man from outside Willowlands as the Master's heir, it's a subject of pressing concern for everyone in the demesne. The Master's status as a Fisher King means that any attempt to transfer the role to someone from a different bloodline, let alone someone not born in the demesne, has an inherently destabilizing effect on the land even under the best circumstances - which these are not. Mirasol instinctively hates the new Heir, Horuld, on sight even before she learns that he's a Smug Snake who's hoping to marry her to cement his claim to the demesne; after she discovers that she's not the only one who finds him objectionable, she begins to suspect that her reaction is her power as Chalice recognizing that Horuld is unfit to serve as Master, rather than just personal dislike.
  • Morton's Fork: Via Contrived Clumsiness. Whether the Master catches his liege lord and burns him, or lets him fall, it's an insult sufficient to allow an outsider to challenge him to a duel.
  • Narrative Filigree: Par for the course for a Robin McKinley novel, this is a world richly described in exhaustive detail, and we hear more about beekeeping and managing a demesne than is strictly necessary to advance the plot (but still a lot of fun to read, if you're into that style).
  • Noodle Incident: In a sinister take on this trope, whatever...precisely...happened to the previous Master and his Chalice is never explained. All the reader can piece together for sure is that it involved fire, property damage, serious misbehavior of some sort, and multiple deaths, including theirs. Yikes.
  • Plague of Good Fortune: When the Chalice first comes on Mirasol, it results in her goats suddenly producing about triple the usual amount of milk and her beehives literally overflowing with honey. Unfortunately, managing her woodright is a full-time job under the best of circumstances, and with the demesne in chaos Mirasol is pushed to her limits just trying to keep her woodright in order and doesn't have time to process all the extra milk and honey.
  • Playing with Fire: The Master's power as a priest of Fire.
  • Sketchy Successor: More than a few people are of the opinion that the Master and his older brother were born in the wrong order, and that the younger brother should have inherited the title from the beginning. Their father was a capable Master, but his oldest son was only interested in power and self-indulgence - seven years of his excess and misrule has left Willowlands in a bad state.
  • Taught by Experience: All members of the Circle save the Master should have a period of apprenticeship under their predecessor to learn how to perform their responsibilities before they take up the role themselves. Unfortunately, Mirasol wasn't chosen as Chalice until after the death of the previous Chalice. Since there was absolutely no one around who could teach her how to do her job, she's had to make do by a lot of reading, guesswork, and trial-and-error.
  • Unexpected Successor: As younger brother to the previous Master, the new Master should have remained heir apparent until his brother had a child of his own, but the older brother had him packed off to the priesthood of Fire to get him out of the way. Because elemental priests physically transform into their element as they progress through the levels of the priesthood, there was absolutely no expectation that he would return, until his older brother died suddenly with no heir and it became necessary to call the younger brother back from the priesthood to take over the role.
  • Utility Magic: For most of the story, the most obvious effect of Mirasol's power as Chalice is that it makes her bees remarkably docile and productive, and her tiny farm supernaturally fruitful.
  • What a Piece of Junk: The ponies in Chalice are pretty alleged by Damarian standards (the Master's older brother certainly seemed to think so), until you realize that while they may be slow and fat, Ponty is very calm around dangerous things (read: bees and fire), and Gallant and Ironfoot have impressive amounts of endurance, and that this is exactly what the protagonists need them to be.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: The Master accidentally burns the back of Mirasol's hand during the ceremony to welcome him to the demesne, and although she tries various remedies, the burn never seems to heal. Mirasol steadfastly insists that it's a result of the burn being in such a thin-skinned and inconvenient place, but others, including the Master himself, take it as something more supernatural. It doesn't heal until the Master uses his power over Fire on it.