Book Review

A magic touch with the medieval

By Edith Pearlman
November 19, 2008
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Robin McKinley employs magic with a light hand. She does let herself go when somebody has to kill a dragon, but usually she keeps the inexplicable modest. Sometimes a character has one unusual talent - talking to animals, say - but the talent doesn't affect personality or motivation. Humans, even the ones handy with spells, are still human.

In "Chalice," the heroine Mirasol is involved with bees. They become her protectors, and a number die on her behalf. This unusual relationship develops gradually through the book. In most ways Mirasol is a young woman living in a cottage, keeping her bees and selling their powerful honey.

Settings are more or less medieval: kings and kingdoms, heirs, fiefdoms; castles and forests and farms. There are shoemakers and shepherds, witches and sorcerers, each with a peculiar power, most with a reluctance to use it except for domestic purposes like curing chilblains.

It's the land that's of greatest importance. "My country first," Mirasol might say if she were given to bombast. This importance of land unites her books. Most of their plots relate the development of skills essential to a heroine destined, or perhaps only determined, to save her threatened country. It is probably this mild variation on a theme that has convinced librarians to stash McKinley in the fantasy and/or young adult section, as if grown-ups are too jaded to appreciate that within McKinley's tales she addresses serious issues, and that she creates round and individual characters by accomplished use of that elusive thing, the telling detail.

In relating the struggles of her heroine, McKinley acquaints us casually with carpentry, gardening, baking, weaving, horse training, swordsmanship. Other subjects shown vividly in incident are the pain of choosing the lesser evil, the peril of beauty, the love of power, the bond within families. Dysfunction too: brothers plot against each other, and one father makes plans to marry his own daughter.

McKinley's prose is rich and rhythmic. Conversations are sometimes formal, sometimes coded, sometimes intense, sometimes casual. Wit slips in like a mouse. The characters in these magic lands sometimes use words that we don't recognize - words introduced in conversation without explanation, then used again. Context makes the meaning clear. Without effort the reader has absorbed a small, odd vocabulary.

These books are for anyone who likes novels that recall truths about human nature or suggest new ones. Without removing McKinley from the YA/fantasy shelves, I'd like to slip a few volumes into the adult section, so that readers willing to abandon their reliance on the utterly believable can enter one that's believable while in it. They will find that the themes are not "who marries the princess" and "who inherits the fortune" but are the nature of the state, the sanctity of work, the primacy of loyalty.

"Chalice" is simpler than some McKinley tales but no less deep. It pays particular attention to the use of ritual, whose purpose, we are never told but gradually come to understand, is to preserve courtesy, that necessary lubricant of society. In this, as in her other books, love appears slowly as the lovers, working toward a shared goal, get to know each other. Often the male is unattractive and clumsy; he stays that way and gets loved anyway. And there is, thank goodness, no love-at-first-sight - that myth believed in by young adults but discarded by those of us who've been around. McKinley's books are for old adults, too.

Edith Pearlman is author of the story collections "Vaquita," "Love Among the Greats," and "How to Fall."


CHALICE By Robin McKinley

Putnam, 272 pp., $18.99

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