Pinch yourself. This year is too good to believe: Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley have both released new books: The Bell at Sealey Head for McKillip, and Chalice, for McKinley. Interestingly, they explore a similar theme: the roles, limitations, and importance of ritual.
McKillip, who often choses medieval-flavored settings for her novels, is writing in a more Jane-Austenesque world this time. In the sleepy, isolated fishing town of Sealey Head, for hundreds of years, an unseen bell has rung throughout the countryside, just as the sun sets. Most folk don't even hear it any more—it's just part of life. Judd Cauly, the struggling innkeeper, and Gwyneth Blair, the merchant's daughter, who's a closet writer, still hear it. So does Emma, the maid at Aislinn House, who sometimes opens doors in the old mansion and finds her friend, Princess Ysabo, diligently attending to a mysterious ritual that no one in that other world understands. Then Ripley Dow comes to town, full of questions about magic, and especially about Aislinn House, and everyone's lives change forever.
As usual with McKillip, the book has beautiful, haunting descriptions and a sometimes-comical lilt that keeps it from dragging or taking itself too seriously. I kept waiting for the tremendous experience that usually accompanies a McKillip book, but it fell a little flat for me. Was it that she'd created too many POV characters with not enough for everyone to do? Was it the evil bad guy, straight off the evil-bad-guy shelf? Perhaps it was that the ritual she portrayed, and the conclusions the book seemed to draw about ritual itself, fell flat for me. Or maybe I just had unreasonably high expectations. Even Patricia McKillip is entitled to an "off" book.
In Chalice, Mirasol the beekeeper has suddenly become the Chalice, in a land that requires a whole quorum of magical keepers and a complex set of rituals to keep it stable, wholesome, and productive. Mirasol's newfound powers work through her honey, and her bees, as a group, are an integral character. Most Chalices serve a long apprenticeship and take up their duties smoothly when the previous Chalice dies. But this time, both Master and Chalice have died horribly wrong deaths, the land is in an uproar, most of its keepers are brand-new at their responsibilities, and the new Master has been wrenched out of his training as a fire-mage. The moment he arrives, he accidentally burns Mirasol's hand to the bone with a mere brush of his burning hot finger. Master and Chalice must wrestle with unfamiliar new powers, political pressures, and their own doubts to save the land and themselves.
McKinley drops the reader right into the action, then backtracks repeatedly to explain what has gone before. This didn't work well for me, but the descriptions of the world were so lush, and the fantasy elements so fresh and unusual, I didn't care much after a few chapters. Who knew you could get attached to a special hive of bees as a character? And who knew honey could fascinate? In this book, what's known about the old rituals doesn't always fit with the alarming situation in which the main characters find themselves, so they have to let go of their preconceptions to understand, then evolve the rituals. I found this approach to ritual much more nuanced and satisfying than McKillip's. It got me thinking about the evolving role of the rituals in my own life.
But. Wrinkles and all, these are both fabulous books. Pinch. Buy. Read.