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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet


Author: Robin McKinley
Originally Published: 2008
Author Website:

ChaliceMirasol had been appointed Chalice a few months before the book begins. Becoming the second in command to The Master of a demesne is quite the change from making a living as a beekeeper, and Mirasol (or just “Chalice” as she is known as through the book) has a hard time making this adjustment. The previous Master and Chalice have died unexpectedly and horribly, and the new Master (the old Master’s younger brother) must now return to the demesne from his training to become a priest of Fire in order to take his right place as the head of the demesne. Now both Chalice and the Master have to figure out their roles and manage to keep the land and people happy – but the land does not necessarily respond well to a priest of Fire. And can the people trust a Master who can burn the flesh off a person with a mere touch?

I have a few of McKinley’s books on my TBR list. I think I may remove the rest of them after finishing this one. It’s not that it was a bad book, it just wasn’t what I had been expecting or hoping. In fact, I can’t even rightly say whether I liked it or disliked it. And I had been struggling with that since I first picked up the book. And Yet! Something kept me reading.

I like books that are extremely character centric, and character driven. I like a lot of deep characters, and a lot of character development. The characters in Chalice felt extremely one dimensional to me. Even Mirasol – Chalice – didn’t really have anything there that I could grasp on to; until about 3/4 of the way into the book, that is. She came across as extremely apathetic, even robotic, for the majority of the book.

The secondary characters weren’t around much in the book, but when they did get some screen time, they too felt undeveloped and one dimensional. The only character who stuck out to me was the Grand Seneschal, a surly old man. No one else was given the opportunity to become LIKEABLE, let alone memorable.

Then there was the relationship between Chalice and the Master. The book showed 3 major meetings between the two characters. It was obvious that there was attraction on the part of Chalice towards the Master, but then all of a sudden they’re talking about getting married. It was … so rushed and unexpected; there was no real buildup to that moment. I have a tendency to enjoy the buildup more than the actual resolution, so I felt slightly cheated in that respect.

One of the other large things that made it difficult for me to enjoy this book was actually the way it was written. I found the sentence structure distracting. I didn’t always know what was going on. For example, at times the paragraph was describing what’s going on in a situation when all of a sudden it would be Chalice’s thoughts that I was reading, without any differentiation at all. It was, as I said, distracting. The book is told in third person, yet would suddenly switch to first person. There was no real segue between different things, or no indication that a change of perspective had occurred until part way through. The same thing occurred with events happening in the present and ones happening in the past – there were times when the book would jump from one to the other and it was confusing.


Throughout the day, when I wasn’t reading it, it still stayed in my thoughts. It had sticking power. I was left wondering, pondering, what would happen next. I liked the story itself – it had some positively great moments that showed what great potential the book itself had. It was different enough from everything else, and yet had some similarities to certain books that I love – it reminded me a little bit of Keturah and Lord Death, as well as the Axis Trilogy (in a small part where Chalice is journeying around the demesne binding the land, accompanied by two donkeys).

I’m wondering whether McKinley’s other books would come across this way to me as well, or whether it was just this book. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be reading those other books by her on my TBR list. Has anyone who has read any of her other books found this sort of thing to be the case for those books as well?

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 8:50 pm November 28, 2008.
Category: Young Adult
Book Author(s):
Publisher(s): ,

  • Memory

    I’ve read five of McKinley’s books so far, (four novels and one short story collection), and I find her really uneven. When she’s good, she’s very good. When she’s bad, she’s a real slog.

    I’d say THE HERO AND THE CROWN is the best novel I’ve read from her. It feels like a big, sweeping legend… but at the same time, it’s very personal. I was completely involved throughout most of the novel, but there was a very strange, distanced segment near the middle. It picked up again in the end, but for a little while I was tempted to put it down.

    THE BLUE SWORD, which takes place in the same world as THE HERO AND THE CROWN, was occasionally mindblowing. Most of the time, though, I had to force my way through it. I’d be completely involved one sentence, then bored stiff the next. It was very uneven.

    SUNSHINE was very good, but very slow. I did enjoy it, but mostly for the worldbuilding. The characterization and plot neither attracted nor repulsed me.

    THE OUTLAWS OF SHERWOOD is by far my least favourite McKinley. I had a tough time getting through it; something about the syntax just didn’t agree with me. It’s probably the worst book I’ve read this year.

    The short story collection I mentioned was WATER, co-written with Peter Dickinson. It’s made me eager to read more of her short fiction; all her contributions were satisfying, emotionally-charged reads.

    So basically, I do think she’s worth picking up again… but be forewarned that the odds are 50/50.

  • Court

    Memory – Well, from what you’ve said, it sounds like I’ll be best sticking with her short fiction. So perhaps that’s what I will end up doing. It sounds a lot safer than the 50/50 with her novels. Thanks for letting me know! :)

  • Nymeth

    I was going to say what Memory said. I’ve only read two McKinley books (Beauty and Deerskin) and I enjoyed both a lot (my favourite thing about them was possibly the characterization, actually), but I’ve heard from several big fans that she’s hit or miss. Which ones do you have on your tbr pile?

  • Court

    Nymeth – I’ve had my eyes on Beauty and Spindle’s End for a while now. I know that I’ve read a bunch of blog posts in the past year or two about Beauty – if I recall correctly, you had talked about it on your blog.

  • Lisa

    I can’t even rightly say whether I liked it or disliked it. And I had been struggling with that since I first picked up the book. And Yet! Something kept me reading.

    I felt exactly the same while reading this book! Even after finishing it, I can’t tell you whether I felt it was just okay or I liked it.

    The only other of the author’s books I’ve read is Sunshine. I liked it but finished it wanting more and the author has stated she will not write a sequel.

    I have Spindle’s End on my TBR. I think McKinley will be one of those authors that I’ll pick up the book if it’s at the Goodwill Bookstore (books are $1 there) but I won’t seek out the author otherwise.