7/27/11 ** Robin McKinley has created an entirely new world for this tale, one in which the land is close to its magical roots and must be nurtured by a Circle of experts: Master, Chalice, Grand Seneschal, Landsman, Talisman, etc. As the story opens, both the previous Master and Chalice have died unexpectedly without Heir or apprentice, leaving the broken and anguished land in the care of two flawed and completely untrained replacements. The protagonist, Mirasol, is the new Chalice, feeling her way into the leadership of the demesne even as she cares for her bees and the woods that had previously been her responsibility. Because she is so familiar with the art of beekeeping and honey making, honey becomes a key element of her nature-based magic.
McKinley has done what she does so well - thrust the reader into a confusing time in the protagonist's life and revealed things to the reader at the same moment that they are revealed to the main character. This can lead to a confusing reading experience if you're a person who wants a good feel for the setting & problems, as well as a sense of how the problems might be revealed. However, Mirasol is so compassionate and resolute that I wanted to keep reading, to discover how she'd overcome the barriers created by strict feudal roles and strong traditions.