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The Black Chalice
Marie Jakober
Ace Books, 480 pages

The Black Chalice
Marie Jakober
Marie Jakober grew up in a log cabin on a small homestead in northern Alberta. Her home schooling, by correspondence, and an imaginative flair for storytelling brought her international recognition at age 13 with the publication of her poem The Fairy Queen. She graduated from Carleton University with distinction, and has toured, lectured, and served on numerous panels. She is the author of five books, including the science fiction novel The Mind Gods, and the winner of the 1985 Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction for her novel Sandinista. She lives in Calgary, Canada.

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SF Site Review: The Black Chalice
SF Site Review: The Black Chalice
Sample Chapter: The Black Chalice

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

It's 1134. In a bleak monastery somewhere in Germany, Paul of Ardiun begins the chronicle he has been ordered by his religious superiors to write: the story of the knight Karelian Brandeis, for whom Paul once served as squire, who fell prey to the evil wiles of a seductive sorceress, thereby precipitating civil war and the downfall of a king. But before Paul can set down more than a sentence or two of this cautionary tale, the sorceress herself magically appears to him. He is a liar, she tells him, and always has been. She lays a spell on him: from this moment, he will only be able to write the truth.

And what is the truth? To re-discover it, Paul must go back thirty years, to the day Karelian and his men are driven by storm deep into the menacing Forest of Helmardin. There, they come upon a mysterious castle, where they're received as if expected. Inside is light and luxury -- and Raven, the castle's mistress, more beautiful and fascinating than any human woman could be. Karelian and his men fall deeply under her seductive spell. Only Paul, good Christian that he is, is able to recognize Raven's pagan sorcery, and to resist it.

Thus begins a powerful tale of ambition, delusion, obsession, and betrayal, focused upon four memorable characters: Karelian, jaded by too many years of fighting, who has come to question the beneficence and even the worthiness of the Christian god; Raven, priestess of the old gods, struggling to keep their power alive against the encroaching threat of Christianity; Gottfried von Heyden, Duke of Reinmark and Karelian's patron, who believes himself the heir to an incredible destiny and is determined to create God's kingdom on earth; and Paul, devoutly religious yet unable to suppress the forbidden desires of his true nature, doomed always to fall short of the purity he longs for more than anything else. These four, with their opposed beliefs and agendas, draw one another inevitably into an escalating spiral of violence that reaches out to engulf the whole of Reinmark. Meanwhile, behind their human conflict, a larger one plays out: between the ancient pagan gods and the new god of Christianity, who cannot rest until he possesses all the world.

Fantasy and historical novels have a lot in common, for to recreate the past is as much an act of imagination as to build a non-existent world from scratch. The Black Chalice is a near-flawless melding of the two forms. Jakober has invented the duchy of Reinmark, along with all the places and characters in it, but this fabricated region possesses a completely authentic historicity. Yet while Reinmark is familiar in that sense, it's also quite alien -- in its political sensibilities, for instance, in which the religious and the secular are never completely separate, and the mindset of the characters, whose priorities and concerns are very different from modern ones. This skillfully-evoked sense of real-world strangeness allows the fantasy elements (which include not just magic but supernatural beings, the risen dead, and the pagan cup of plenty known in Christian mythology as the Holy Grail) to blend seamlessly with the historical ones, to form a unified and convincing whole. It's a combination that will appeal as much to fans of historical writers like Cecelia Holland as to fantasy buffs.

The struggle between Christianity and the old gods provides the book's overarching theme. But The Black Chalice isn't just a pagan tract. In Jakober's scenario, the difference between pagan and Christian isn't so much a difference of kind as of degree. The Christian god is one of many, a sky god who like other sky gods desires mastery over the earth. What makes him unique is that he has accumulated not just spiritual power, through his followers' belief in him, but political power, through the ceaseless wars of conquest fought in his name. This, according to Jakober, is the true threat of Christianity: that church and empire will unite into a single entity, leaving nothing in the world that does not belong to the Christian god, no corner in which non-Christian ways can hide. It's that struggle, not just the more generalized opposition between old gods and new, that lies at the heart of the book -- a more subtle take on the Christian/pagan dichotomy than usual, with some interesting contemporary resonance.

Though Christianity doesn't come off well at all in The Black Chalice, its views and arguments are scrupulously presented, mainly through the character of Paul, whose unwilling narrative forms the novel's backbone. Paul is desperately devout, but also profoundly dishonest with himself and others about his desires and impulses. Every action he takes is double-sided, stemming both from the purest Christian and the basest personal motives. Jakober conveys this difficult mix with admirable skill; in a book full of memorable characters, Paul stands out. He's not likeable, but he is believable and understandable, and, ultimately, pitiable in his pointless self-torment. The process by which he comes, finally, not just to tell the truth but to understand it is one of the novel's most compelling themes.

The Black Chalice is the work of a major talent: intelligently conceived, beautifully written, powerfully absorbing, deeply moving. It deserves wide acclaim, and wider readership. It's a prime candidate for hand-selling. Hopefully booksellers will see the quality of this striking book, and direct their customers toward it.

Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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