A Tunnel in the Sky

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by Robin McKinley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 7, 2023

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There are several very good things about this novel, the first being the main character, Marisol. However, there are a few things I could criticize, the first being it should have been Marisol's first-person narrative rather than third-person, especially because everything is from her perspective. The narrator is telling us her thoughts and emotions rather than Marisol revealing them herself. McKinley did such a masterful job in first-person in other books, the best being Sunshine. I suppose it is possible Marisol is telling the story years later, using third-person omniscient voice as a way of distancing herself from the proceedings. Another criticism would be about multiple repeated passages of how Marisol felt unsuited to the position to which she had been elevated, that of Chalice, second only to the Master of the Willowlands demesne. I won't criticize McKinley for not giving much information about the history and politics of this land, since that mirrors Marisol's lack of knowledge, at least until she begins reading the histories in order to figure out how to perform her duties. Before that she had been a simple woodwright's daughter, and a beekeeper, although she had one quality that made her suitable as Chalice, the ability to feel and communicate with the earthlines.

One definition of demesne (medieval version of domain) is "an estate or part of an estate occupied and controlled by, and worked for the exclusive use of, the owner." In this case, the owner is not the Master, but rather the King, who rules through his Overlord, who is also in control of multiple other Masters' demesnes. The position of Master was traditionally passed down from father to son, for multiple generations, but at other times an "outblood" heir is designated by the Overlord as the situation dictates. It was also traditional that the Master and Chalice, as well as the ten other members of the Circle, recruit an apprentice to train to be their replacements. The old Master, the father of the new one, had served for over sixty years, his eldest son succeeding him. But the son had not taken a wife, nor had any children, nor did he take his younger brother as apprentice, in fact he had no apprentice, and neither did his Chalice. After seven years, when the young Master, his Chalice, and several others of his Circle, died in a conflagration at the sacred pavilion, Willowlands was faced with an unprecendented crisis. Not only was the younger son not apprenticed, his brother had sent him off to be initiated into the Priesthood of Fire. To the astonishment of the Prelate, a surviing member of the Circle, whose job it was to cast the divination rods which would tell him who the new Master would be, the rods said to recall the younger brother from the priests, even though he was already into the third level of initiation. By the fourth level he would not be able to return, no longer truly human at that point.

The Prelate had also cast the rods multiple times for the new Chalice, always with the same result. It would be Marisol, which surprised her as much as anyone else. It is possible the earthlines had already been trying to tell her she was special, since her bees over-produced honey, and her goats were giving three times as much milk as before, perhaps because they wanted to create a stockpile that they would not be able to maintain once she was Chalice, having less time to tend them. The recently deceased Master did not have a good reputation, devoting his time to pleasures of the flesh rather than maintaining the earthlines, which would protect all the people, animals, and plants within the demesne. Marisol had only a few months to prepare to greet the new Master, all the time worried she was not worthy, and that the Master would be too far gone into Fire to be effective in his duties. Against tradition, Marisol chose to remain at her cottage, rather than move to the House where the Master and all Circle members resided. She wanted too be able to keep an eye on her bees and goats, and the walk to the House was but a few minutes anyway. This caused the third in the hierarchy, the Great Seneschal, to doubt her ability, over and above his worries concernning his new Master.

It was perpetually on Marisol's mind, and the Seneschal's, and probably many others across the demesne, of why the King and Overlord allowed the previous Master to shirk his duties. Then when the new Master had hardly had a chance to prove himself, the Overlord declared an outblood as Master's Heir, quickly followed by the Heir challenging the Master to faenorn, a ritual duel, to be held in a sennight (one week). The majority of the Circle did not support the Master, and Marisol sensed that many of the citizenry were afraid of him, so it was up to her to help. Even with all of her doubts, she was fully faithful to the demesne, and to the traditions she was finally learning to understand. She supported her Master, and had recently mended her relations with the Seneschal, who also was behind his Master. She had also hated the Heir, and the Overlord, as soon as she had met them, due to their arrogance and condescension. She took it upon herself to travel the far reaches of the demesne, tracking the earthlines to soothe them, to bring peace and tranquility to the land, to its people, and all other creatures. When she returned to the House, on the morning of the faenorn, it is obvious many had become aware of what she had been doing. The Circle might be against them, but the majority were for them. And her bees. They were for her too, and helped in the final ceremony.

Another very good book from Grand Master Robin McKinley. While some details are sparse, they are overshadowed by the character development of Marisol, the Master, the Seneschal, and several others, as well as descriptions of the lands and its peoples. A new Circle is in order, and Marisol has several ideas about that. If a lowly beekeeper can rise to Chalice, why not others who know the demesne as well as she; farmers, ranchers, gardeners, cooks, horse handlers, sheep herders? A new Circle for a new, revitalized Willowlands. The only downside is the book ends there. We don't get to see how Willowlands fares after that. But I have confidence it is in good hands. Recommended.


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Robin McKinley

September 18, 2008

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