Reviews of 'Chalice' and 'House of Many Ways'

For readers ages 8-12, two fantasy tales with charm to spare.

Chalice By Robin McKinley Putnam 272 pp., $18.99 Ages 8-12

And when darkness had fallen upon the land, the people cried out for a champion to deliver them from their troubles. And she turned out to be ... a beekeeper.

Such is the delicious premise of Newbery Medal winner Robin McKinley’s new novel, Chalice.

The people weren’t exactly thrilled when their new spiritual leader turned out to be an apiast. And frankly, it wasn’t much fun for Mirasol either.

Her small farm was literally overflowing with milk and honey – she couldn’t do her other work because she had to milk her goats several times a day – and the results were rather sticky and fragrant.

The only one the people have less faith in than Mirasol is the new Master, who was apprenticed against his will as a priest of Fire and can no longer touch anyone without severely burning them.

A threat to the kingdom
The two replacement leaders find themselves confiding in one another hesitantly, but they may not be able to gain enough trust in themselves before an outsider tries to scoop up their tiny kingdom.

“Chalice” is a contemplative story geared toward readers of high fantasy. (The nature-based magic is rather druidic in origin.)

McKinley writes with complete assurance, and the novel’s climax is both compelling and a delightful change from formulaic fantasy. (Readers of “Beauty” also may detect a nod to McKinley’s favorite fairy tale.)

McKinley’s always had a deft touch with animals – from dogs and hunting cats to dragons. But Mirasol’s bees, in all their furry splendor, are a particularly memorable delight.

A magic insect looms large in a new fantasy by another veteran young adult author, but the wasp-like lubbock isn’t nearly as much fun. Bookworm Charmain Baker encounters the scary bug-beast while house sitting for her great uncle, the Wizard Norland, in Diana Wynne Jones’s House of Many Ways.

Recalcitrant pets and the occasional broken dish are hazards for any house sitter, but it’s safe to say no one else has ever encountered the problems faced by Charmain.
For one thing, the kitchen needs a full HazMat team – and someone seems to have stolen the taps from the sink.

(Even if running water were available, Charmain isn’t domestically inclined – her mother feels chores aren’t “respectable.”)

For another, there’s a stray dog no one told her about – a white silky mop with the appetite of a full-grown grizzly – and a newly arrived apprentice with no wizard to teach him.
But the biggest problem is that when you open the door, there’s no telling where you’ll end up.

On the trail of the missing treasury
As if trying to learn how to do dishes and laundry – not to mention find her way back to her bedroom – weren’t enough to cut into her reading time, Charmain finds herself volunteering to help hunt for her kingdom’s missing treasury and its even-more-missing Elfgift.

Leading that hunt is a wizard whom fans will remember from “Howl’s Moving Castle”: Sophie Pendragon. (Howl is unlikely to allow himself to be left out, and his entrance is one of the book’s best jokes.)

Wynne Jones, who won one of her two Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for “Howl’s,” is one of the most reliable young adult fantasy writers around.

I was smitten as soon as Charmain began flipping through one of her uncle’s spell books and found instructions on locating lost princes. “Who needs a prince?” the fabulous girl scoffs and moves on to more interesting magic.

“House of Many Ways” is as witty as Wynne Jones’s fans have come to expect. If the magic adventure isn’t quite as enveloping as its predecessor, it still offers charm to spare and a welcome excuse to visit with old friends.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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