I’ll be back … she threatened

Hey.

Life is right up in my face at the moment, and things are taking longer to do than I thought. Just wanted to say that I’ll be back soon. Sorry I’m missing out on all the awesome stuff you’re reading right now … I’ll catch up. Happy reading in the meantime! 🙂

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Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

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Before I begin, can I just say that it’s a complete fluke that there are fairy-tale-retelling elements in Heart’s Blood, after last week’s Kingdom of Sleep, and that this parallel in my reading was in no way deliberate. Just one of those happy accidents.

I picked this up having been inspired by both Maddalena of Space and Sorcery and Karina of Karina Reads to try Juliet Marillier’s books (hearty thanks are due!). I have Daughter of the Forest on the book pile at home, but I got caught short at work without a book to read (drama!) and Heart’s Blood was very conveniently in my locker (where I keep all the library books I want to take out, but don’t yet have space for on my library ticket – yes, these are the trials and tribulations of my working life!).

And darn it! I loved this book! With all its fairy-tale romance tropes – grumpy male lead, mysterious castle cut off from the everyday world, beautiful young woman seeking refuge – I loved it. Despite it being a retelling of one of the suckiest fairy-tales ever, Beauty and the Beast (I’ll spare you the whole rant that goes with that) – I loved it. I’m officially aboard the Marillier train – woo woo!

The story is set in late 12th century Ireland, at the time of the Norman invasion. It’s told by (and is about) Caitrin, a rare female scribe who, at the opening of the book, has summoned up the courage to escape a less than ideal home situation, and found herself in Whistling Tor, a small settlement with plenty of creepy stories about their chieftain, who lives in the big spooky castle at the top of the local hill. Said chieftain is looking for a scribe to translate some family documents, and Caitrin, less afraid of stories than she is of what she’s left behind, decides to apply for the job. What follows is part reimagining of Beauty and the Beast (a library, a garden, a magic mirror), part mystery (what exactly is the curse on the people of Whistling Tor? And who keeps moving Roise the doll?), part ghost story (so so creepy in places – I am such a wimp when it comes to the scary stuff). And it’s brilliant.

Not least because of its well-written characters. Caitrin, unusually for the period, has been taught both to read and write, and the art of script illumination by her scribe father, and until his death she worked with him carrying out commissions for legal documents, private manuscripts and the like. She is a skilled craftswoman in her own right and takes pride in this. She has come from a warm and loving family, but the death of her father and the departure of her older sister left her alone with two distant relations who bullied and brutalised her, and while she has had the courage to escape them, she has become a nervous shadow of what she once was. Her coming back to her calm and confident self was one of my secret joys in reading Heart’s Blood. Caitrin is a determinedly hopeful character with enough affection for everyone, and her budding relationship with Anluan, the chieftain of Whistling Tor, was equally satisfying.

One of my big problems with romance is that it is often written to titillate, and that pisses me off. I don’t appreciate the feeling of being manipulated into finding something attractive just because all the ingredients are there. So the romantic male lead is assertive, has a ‘passionate’ temper and a deep voice? So? So does an overbearing prig. I want to know about characters’ thoughts and feelings, I want to know about their ideas and dreams, I want to see them grow, and, most importantly, I want to decide for myself whether they’re ‘attractive’ or not. Anluan has the temper of a boy too used to getting his own way, no manners at all, and because of a palsy he suffered as a child he is not the image of rugged Irish manliness he thinks he should be. I initially found him grating and slappable. But Caitrin, in an exceptional feat of empathy, is able to imagine what it must have been like for him to have grown up in the sad, cursed castle on the Tor, and to see past all his snarling and sniping to the self-doubt at his core. She works hard to help Anluan, first because it’s her job and she is an actively curious person, then because she becomes fond of everyone at Whistling Tor, and finally, yes, because she comes to love him, (which still gets an *eye-roll*). Thanks to Caitrin though, and to Marillier, I came to like and appreciate Anluan. I enjoyed all the growing up he does over the course of the story and I was even proud of his overcoming some seriously daunting obstacles. He ends up becoming a good chieftain, and I actually did a little cheer when he and Caitrin finally, finally realised they loved each other (although I’d still have been happier if we’d left that at the bedroom door … oh my … *blush*).

And Anluan’s home is almost a character in itself too. Marillier’s historical Ireland feels very real, but Whistling Tor practically crackles with the uncanny. From the unseen presences that Caitrin encounters on her first journey up the hill, to the benign scarecrow in the garden, to the things seen in the many mirrors made by one of his ancestors, Whistling Tor is wonderfully creepy and alive with its own private history because of the curse on Anluan’s family. There is so much more I want to say about this that I can’t without becoming incoherent or spoiling too much, so I will satisfy myself with: I didn’t see the nature of the host coming, I loved the discovery about the curse, and, wow! that final reveal!

Oh my goodness, all the awesome things I haven’t even mentioned yet: Caitrin’s work in the library (I’d have been happy with a book entirely about her sorting and cataloguing Anluan’s family documents); the mirrors; the warm and wonderful Magnus and his kitchen; Olcan and Fianchu (dear Fianchu! Best dog ever!), and Rioghan and Eichri, and Cathair, Gearrog and the little girl; the host (the awesome, otherworldly, read-this-book-because-of-them host); the lovely Donal and Maeve; the best Big Bad ever; the secret in the potting shed; Irial’s beautiful garden. There’s just too much to say. I really, really enjoyed this book.

Darn it. 🙂

Kingdom of Sleep by E K Johnston

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After really loving E K Johnston’s A Thousand Nights I shouldn’t be surprised that I was a little bit disappointed with her next offering. To be fair though, that’s on me more than on Johnston – I was never going to love a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (the title character does nothing/ heroic prince and damsel-in-distress princess/ true love’s kiss – bleurgh!) anywhere near as much as a retelling of Scheherazade’s story. And while Kingdom of Sleep lacks some of the cleverness and sheer beauty of A Thousand Nights, frankly, if all YA fiction was to this standard it would still be a vast improvement. One of my small gripes with this companion novel is that it reads YA in a way that the first book definitely did not. And the romance is both predictable, unavoidable (considering the source material) and … sorry … too squishy for me.

That said, I loved the way Johnston went about the romance. Yes, I could see it coming a mile away, but I liked the gentle humour involved (particularly Yashaa’s unbelievable ignorance of certain biological matters, which meant there was no … ahem … petty fingers, or worse), the rather tender way in which it unfolded, and the ending. I can’t say anything about that without utterly spoiling the book, but I’d recommend it because of the conclusion alone. I imagine poor young teen readers will find it heart-breaking *evil chuckle*, but I thought it was a pretty fresh approach to a story ending that’s been done to death. (And I might have felt just a little sympathy for Yashaa and Zahrah … maybe … but don’t tell anyone).

I liked, too, that this was a story with friendship at its heart. Yashaa, Saoud, Tariq and Arwa are friends who love and respect one another throughout the story. They have become family to one another through loss and necessity. There’s no rivalry, no love triangles, no ridiculous fallings-out to further the plot or to create tension. The silliest thing is Yashaa’s hatred for the Little Rose at the beginning of the book, and thankfully that didn’t last long enough for me to get cross with him.

On the flip side, I found that some things didn’t quite sit right with me. The curse, for example, is the work of a demon here, a part of its long game of manipulation and power-gathering, but in this context it didn’t ever quite make narrative sense. From the moment you know the curse’s full intent you know how it can be shut down, which means the reader can see the ending coming (not the absolute ending, just the ending for the demon), and that meant that I could never quite be as afraid of the demon’s threats as I might have been. Also, while I really loved the piskys and the gnomes, they felt a bit out of place in this mostly desert-fringe setting. A forensic archaeologist IRL who has worked in the Middle East, Johnston’s world feels authentic most of the time (one of the things I really enjoyed about A Thousand Nights) and I loved that she decided to keep writing within that setting, but the piskys and gnomes are, for me, so tied up with British mythology and therefore the British landscape, that I struggled to transpose them into her Eastern world. Again, that’s on me.

 

This may not make a whole lot of sense, but what really kept bothering me as I read this was the shape it was making in my mind. Once I’ve read a book it kind of solidifies into a particular shape, a set of images and colours, ideas and feelings that I then file away. So, A Thousand Nights is a perfect egg-shaped story, purple, orange and hot-pink, sprinkled all over with gold, that smells of incense and a cool building in summer. The images of an empty, rolling desert and a beautifully embroidered salwar kameez come to mind when I think of it, and I feel content and pleased. It is a ‘neat’ story, all ends tied off, plot well crafted and executed. (There’s so much more than this: a brown-gold horse, a bedside table, a garden, a plate of figs, the smells that go with these things …) Every book I read becomes a sensory package that’s difficult to unpack or explain, but all my favourites are shaped right. And sadly, while I enjoyed it and would still recommend it, Kingdom of Sleep isn’t quite the right shape. It’s like a piece of embroidery that’s untidy on the reverse.

Clearly I don’t know how to put this into words properly. As a matter of interest, please tell me how you think of books after you’ve read them? Do you categorise and file them in your mind? Do you come to a solid conclusion, or do you remain fluid in your thinking about a book? Are your other senses involved? Do you see images/snapshots when you think of a particular book? I’d love to know other people’s thoughts/feelings on this subject.

Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison

It’s fatal for someone to tell you that if you don’t find a particular thing funny then you don’t have a sense of humour. You’re undoubtedly not going to find that thing as funny as they feel you should.

With that in mind …

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This was recommended to me by an older customer who was reading all the big names in scifi when they were first published back in the 60s and 70s – Asimov, Clarke, Delaney, Aldiss, Heinlein. He’s a great guy and I love talking to him about books. Recently, I expressed an interest in what he would list as his all-time favourite scifi books, and Bill the Galactic Hero was mentioned. Then, unfortunately, those fatal words were uttered: ‘If you don’t find Bill funny then there’s something wrong with you …’. I went ahead and bought it anyway, and … well … it turns out there is something wrong with me because I didn’t laugh.

I got annoyed. I got bored. I rolled my eyes a few times. But no laughing.

So, this will be short.

Things not to like:

  1. Bill is a bit dim and not really very interesting. And as the book goes on he is changed by his military service into a less nice and even less interesting person. He barely has any depth and no one in this book has any dimension at all.
  2. There is no hope, no saving grace, no glimmer of humanity. This is a book all about the senselessness, inevitability and stupidity of war. About the ridiculous time-wasting, the indoctrination, the nit-picking and the soul-breaking. About how military service reduces a person into a tool. While I agree with the sentiment, I am already melancholic by nature, and I don’t need to read this type of thing to be reminded that humanity behaves stupidly oftentimes.

Things to like:

  1. It’s only 160 pages long.

 

For a much more balanced and insightful take on Bill the Galactic Hero please see this Tor.com article by Alan Brown. (I read it before writing the above in the hope that I could be persuaded into a more even-handed opinion, but turns out, I just can’t).

Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge

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First off, while nothing I say here is going to spoil Mosca and Eponymous’ first outing, Fly by Night (my thoughts here), for anyone, I do feel that you should read that book before you tackle Twilight Robbery. The events in the first book have created the situation in the second, and, more importantly, Mosca and Eponymous’ relationship is more touching here if you see first how it began.

“They shared a love of words, a taste for adventure and a dubious relationship with the truth …”

This relationship is so very well written. It’s not something that Hardinge makes a big deal of, but Mosca and Eponymous have come to know and trust one another. Now, don’t get me wrong here, Eponymous Clent is still a silver-tongued, sticky-fingered, mastermind of misanthropic mischief and Mosca Mye is still his equal (and as wonderfully absorbent when it comes to bad language of all kinds – be it slang, criminal cant or expletives – as she ever was). And they continue to squabble like cats in a bag on occasion, but they also know each other’s strengths and weaknesses better, and under Mr Clent’s shabby waistcoat and Miss Mye’s faded frock there is a genuine concern and affection for each other. And this can be no better illustrated than by the fact that Eponymous, while ever hopeful of losing him, no longer actively tries to ditch Saracen, Mosca’s beloved and violent goose. (Ah, Saracen! Hardinge never overuses him, but some of the funniest moments in this book have a goose in them).

After their fairly neat escape from the town of Grabely, courtesy of Mosca’s flourishing skillset, the pair (plus goose) make their way to Toll, a town that sits upon a river and, as is suggested by its name, requires a fee upon both entrance and exit. Once inside Clent and Mosca have three days to find the money to leave and continue on their way, before Mosca gets relegated to the dark side of town. Because Toll is not one place, but two. Toll-by-Day is an apparently clean and pleasant place, but only one half of the story. Toll-by-Night emerges as the sun sets and is the darker heart of the town in many ways. The town changes its physical appearance at night, with the frontages of buildings being swung open or closed to reveal other establishments and routes of passage, and the townsfolk of the day ‘cease to exist’ during the night, as those of the night do during daylight hours. And the way in which it is decided who lives where? Names.

As we learned in Fly by Night the world of Mosca and Clent worships numerous gods, known collectively as the Beloved. Each god has a purpose, and an appointed time of either the day or night. Each person is named after the Beloved dominant at their time of birth, and nobody lies about their name. And in Toll each Beloved has been arbitrarily marked up as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as have the names associated with them. When visitors arrive they are issued with either a light or a dark badge to show whether they have a good or a bad name, so that people can treat them accordingly. By this system Eponymous is given a light badge, and Mosca a dark one.

The book turns out to be a fascinating exploration of ideas like nominative determinism, appearances being deceptive and fear as a method of control. Not everyone living in Toll-by-Day is actually a virtuous person, nor everyone in Toll-by-Night a criminal, but this is how they are treated. Mosca meets just as many characters who prove themselves well-named as those that aren’t, and finds that people can only ever be judged by their behaviour. She is also a budding atheist and radical, questioning both the superstitions surrounding the Beloved, and by what right some people hold power over others. She has become, in this book, one of my all-time favourite characters. Regularly described as ferret-faced and black-eyed, she is brave and resourceful and endlessly curious. Despite her association with the delightfully untrustworthy Clent, she also proves herself loyal to those she has befriended. I really do hope this is not the last Hardinge will write of the marvellous Mosca Mye.

“Having tasted Toll-by-Night’s moonlit stew of murder, menace, treachery and pursuit, she had fallen wildly in love with the six shabby bolts that held the door shut and danger out.”

It’s killing me not to talk about all the things that happen in this book, but I wouldn’t for the world ruin what’s in store for you if you choose to read it. The plot is fabulously knotty and flawlessly executed. There are characters with names like Paragon Collymoddle and Blethemy and Blight Crace, who go about swearing with words like “crabmaggots”, “oh, draggles” and “dungbuckets!” and calling each other things like a “smirking spit-gobbet” and a “pompous old pustule”. There are some truly terrifying moments, like the Pawnbrokers’ Auction and Havoc’s fate in Toll-by-Night. You will meet dastardly villains and daring radicals, brave smugglers and unlikely heroes. You will witness exhilarating escapes, thrilling thefts, multiple masquerades and kickass kidnappings. You will discover just what a person will do for some chocolate!

 

I recommended Fly by Night to a young reader in the library last week because, after establishing that she wanted SFF, I asked her what she was looking for in a book and she said “something weird”. It was like she had been sent to me, a gift from the universe! Because while I was reading Twilight Robbery I was thinking that the kids who love Hardinge with all her ideas and language-play are going to grow up to love Gaiman and Fforde, Peake and Miéville, maybe Barker, maybe VanderMeer, and that makes me grin from ear to ear to ear.

 

Anyhow, I shall leave you with a few of my favourite Beloved from this book:

Goodlady Blatchett – Lifter of the Stone from the Toad

Goodman Phangavotte – He Who Smooths the Tongue of the Storyteller and Frames the Legendary Deed

Goodlady Halepricket – She Who Keeps the Heads of Sheep from Getting Caught in Bushes

Goodman Trywhy – Master of Schemes, Sleights and Stratagems

Goodlady Adwein – Wielder of the Pestle of Fate

*happy chuckle*

 

 

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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This was both an astounding read, and a disturbing one. It’s not a book I can say I enjoyed wholeheartedly because it deals with some very serious stuff, and yet there were parts that were bewitching, and fascinating, and enticing. There was no point at which I felt I’d have to put it down, but there were points at which I wish I could have done. In case I’m not making myself clear, I feel very conflicted about this book.

I think, on the whole, it was good. Byrne’s two unreliable narrators, telling their stories a generation apart, are compelling, if not always 100% likeable. They are flawed and damaged individuals, whose storylines mirror each other in a satisfying symmetry, and who both have secrets that they are keeping from themselves as much as from the reader. We start our journey with twenty-seven-year-old Meena, living in India in the latter half of the 21st Century, who has just found a snake in her bed and fled her home believing herself to be the target of terrorists. It quickly becomes apparent that Meena is in the throes of a manic phase, possible triggered by this shock, and also that she talks to people who are not physically present (the best way to win an argument, I find). Her aim, at first, is only to get as far away from home as possible. Our second narrator, Mariama, a seven-year-old slave living in Africa in around the 2040s, has also just found a snake in the place that she and her mother live and has run away. It is less clear initially why she is so willing to leave her mother, not knowing where she is, but she seems as intent as Meena on getting far away from where she’s been living. The book then follows these two characters as they journey from East and West towards the same point in space, in Ethiopia.

And Byrne writes both journeys and environments really well. Meena’s Keralam and Mumbai and Mariama’s Dakar and Lalibela feel distinct and alive, bustling with people and smells, sights and sounds. Byrne actually travelled to Africa and India to research her book and it shows in all the wonderful details she’s able to incorporate into her story. She also writes these two traumatised psyches well. Both Meena and Mariama are telling their stories to phantoms from their past, haunted by the things that have happened to them and using unreality and avoidance to cocoon themselves away from the truth. If you’re looking for plot in this book it’s already happened, and it’s the revealing of secrets and the putting back together all the pieces that provides the momentum here. This is the appeal of the unreliable narrator though, isn’t it? Re-reading the first chapter after having finished the book was so cool because I could see just how much Byrne was revealing that I hadn’t picked up on, because, you know, first time round I was taking what the narrator said at face value. If it weren’t for all the more uncomfortable bits, I’d happily do a whole second read-through just to enjoy more of that cleverness.

But. Byrne is writing about a future world in which race and gender have become fluid, and people can alter both with genetic modification. A world in which venereal diseases are a thing of the past and contraception is perfect and administered automatically to both males and females upon reaching puberty. Yet, in this fluid environment, Byrne is still writing a story about sexual transgressions against women. Meena talks of being a part of a new sexual revolution in her teens, but I don’t see it, except that she sleeps around plenty. All the violence (bar one act) in this book is still performed against women. By both women and men, sure, but always against women. Both narrator’s stories are driven by this, and trauma begets trauma throughout, and I just don’t know how I feel about the frequent, visceral details of this kind of violence as they appear in this book, combined with all the other really awesome stuff.

Because this problem aside, The Girl in the Road has mystery, and some great technology, and a story of extreme survival, all of which I enjoyed a lot. The mystery I obviously can’t say anything about without spoiling everything, but I definitely want to talk about the tech. At the heart of the book is this future feat of engineering called the Trans-Atlantic Linear Generator, or the Trail, as it’s generally known. This is a pontoon bridge spanning the Atlantic Ocean that harvests wave energy. It’s smart and reactive to its surroundings and made out of the super-conductor Metallic Hydrogen (which is a real thing, because why make this stuff up when we have actual science). In a world where ocean levels are continually rising this is obviously the way to go. Meena chooses to travel to Africa via the Trail – all 3,188km of it – and needs a whole plethora of even cooler tech to survive the journey: from a camouflage-pod for sleeping in (inflatable, submersible, literally invisible from the outside, made of a polymer that can be cut open with a fingernail and sealed again with a pinch, and actually makes me mildly interested in camping), and a ‘solar kiln’ that can make a variety of dishes out of any biological matter; to the broad-spectrum nanobiotics in her medikit and a very clever diaper. There’s also the more usual future tech like hologram soap operas, retinal scanning, Byrne’s version of Star Trek’s Universal Translator, the glotti, automated taxis and rickshaws, wrist-worn mitters for making payments and a pretty cool thing called an aadhaar which sounds like a visual social media thing that floats round your head like a halo (at least that’s how I pictured it). (I’ve just googled the word ‘aadhaar’ and it is actually a thing in India already, a unique identity number based on biometric and demographic data that residents of India can obtain, voluntarily I presume. So, there, I learnt something today).

The actual journey across the Trail is pretty exciting too as Meena adjusts to multiple hardships, encounters both incredible weather conditions and other people living out on the Trail who all sit on a sanity-scale ranging from a bit odd to utterly batty, (my favourites being the group who want to prove that people can survive on seawater, and the man just a little further along the Trail who bears witness for empiricism – ha!).

My pattern-loving brain revelled in the many crossovers and parallels that occur in the two different storylines too. While separated by some thirty years, Meena and Mariama nevertheless share images, characteristics and experiences that read like echoes: The snakes that trigger their flights from home, eating sea-snake, feeling pain in the solar plexus, seeing ghosts of dead girls; the brief appearance of Fatima and Rahel in both timelines; the importance of languages, and the sea, sky and moon as first concepts at the beginning of both journeys; the importance and reoccurrence of names like Saha and Yemaya; the goddess in all her many forms, from Lucy the Australopithecus in Ethiopia, also called Dinkinesh, to the African goddess of the living ocean, and from Mohini the female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, to Durga the invincible.

I love that Byrne has written about a not-too-distant future in which the power of the West has collapsed and Africa and India have risen to prominence. I love that it’s neither utopian nor dystopian in its vision of a world in which sea levels have risen so dramatically that maps have changed and that further changes are happening as the story unfolds – that it’s not about one grand annihilating event that has occurred, but a series of ongoing changes that humanity may or may not survive. I love that for all India and Africa’s political squabbling, the real super power here is the ocean itself. There’s a fair bit I don’t love, enough that I don’t want to own or reread this book, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed reading it, or that I can’t appreciate everything surrounding the bits I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m probably all the more impressed with The Girl in the Road because it was able to keep me interested throughout the grimness. In summary: two enthusiastic thumbs up and a big fat trigger warning.

 

 

Chalice by Robin McKinley

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After the utter grimness of A Clockwork Orange I needed to read something comforting, familiar and beautiful. And Robin McKinley will ever and always be the author I go to for that combination. The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, Beauty, Spindle’s End, and Sunshine are some of my favourite curl-up books, but somehow I missed Chalice being published back in 2008 and bought it earlier this year to plug the gap.

The actual story is small – a young woman is unexpectedly given a significant responsibility she thinks she cannot live up to, but does it well (if unorthodoxically) despite herself. The end. But this is McKinley, and so the getting there is just delightful. She creates a fantasy world that runs along medieval lines, divided up into demesnes (domains) that are each looked after by a Master (lord), all united under an Overlord (king). The Master’s House (manor) is the centre of the demesne, and it is there that he and his Circle live – his eleven fellow wardens of the land, with titles such as Clearseer, Talisman, Weatherauger and Keepfast – including his Chalice, the second most influential person in the Circle after himself, always female, responsible for bring unity and peace to the Circle and the demesne alike.

The book is only concerned with one demesne, Willowlands (imagine a small English village where everyone knows one another and spend their days cutting firewood, tending beehives, growing vegetables and fruit and having children; better yet, imagine W B Yeats’ Innisfree). Willowlands lost its previous Master and Chalice violently in a fire, and the land has been thrown into chaos as a result. Only in this world the land reacts physically to the loss of these two symbolic people. Rifts are opening up in fields, there are earthquakes, and fires in the woodlands, the people and animals living there are more prone to sickness and accident. The earthlines are keening with distress. It has been divined (literally) by the Circle that the new Chalice is Mirasol, a beekeeper. Usually the current Chalice would have an apprentice to take the reins in the event of her death, but Mirasol’s predecessor had none and so Mirasol must learn her way on the job, feeling very much out of her depth.

And so the book follows her on her mostly inward journey as she learns to bring peace back to the land she lives on. For all her fears that she is not doing the best of jobs, she still has the gumption to get on with the doing instead of despairing, which is just as well because she has more than just her own role to worry about. Her new Master, also not an apprentice (don’t you hate predecessors that don’t prepare for the worst? Contingency plans people!), has been called home from the priesthood. Only in the world of Willowlands and its neighbours there’s no church, there are instead three Elements you can be dedicated to: Earth, Air and Fire, and the new Master was a priest of Fire. Priests of the Elements undergo physical transformation during their initiation, and so the Master is not quite human any more. His touch can burn flesh and he’s not quite corporeal any longer either.

It’s taken me three paragraphs just to try and give a sense of what the story is about, but reading this little 259-page book is more a process of absorption than slugging your way through an info-dump. And I don’t feel I’ve done the story much justice. It’s really beautiful, in all its smallness. Mirasol talks to the trees and to the land and to her bees and they listen to her. She notices the character of things, like bolshy, bragging lightning and sleepy, slow-moving pools of water. Her bees figure larger and larger in her life as they take to following her around the demesne when she is performing her duties, and producing so much honey for her that her cup literally overfloweth. And the honey they produce starts to take on different characteristics:

“There was a honey for stomach-aches and a honey for baldness; the stomach-ache honey was also good for bed-wetting and night-terrors in children, and the honey for baldness was also good for too-heavy bleeding during a woman’s monthly and for persuading a broody chicken to stop plucking her breast feathers and get back to laying eggs. (This particular combination made her laugh). And there was a honey that was particularly good for burns and wounds. There was also a honey to stop a well going dry, to stop a dog barking and to make fruit tress crop more heavily; and one that seemed to be to make the weather hold long enough to get the hay cut, dried and stacked.”

 

And the relationship between Mirasol and the Master is lovely too. It can’t quite be described as a love story, but is more like the prequel to their romance, something that will follow after the book is closed. They are two people who don’t think they can do everything that is expected of them, and they identify with each other and come to support each other as the story goes on. They sort of become each other’s anchors.

 

I can imagine people having lots of sarcastic things to say about Chalice in this age of the grimdark and the epic – and that’s too bad for them. I loved it for all its parochialism, descriptiveness and romance. I loved Ponty the pony, and the heart-breaking intervention by the bees, and the magic of Mirasol’s honey, and the moment with the beeswax candles, and learning how a priest of Fire sees the world through his black and red eyes. It’s all exactly what I needed. It was like being given some of Mirasol’s honey, reading this book; a warm, sweet, golden story that made me feel a whole lot better.