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Marie Jakober, The Black Chalice

Calgary: EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2000. 460 pp, $35.95.
Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

Calgary’s Marie Jakober has returned with an exciting, and thoughtfully adventurous historical fantasy, The Black Chalice, in which she turns away from the far future and the revolutionary wars of today to the time of the Crusades. This is a novel grand in narrative, grand in ideas, and, especially, grand in ambition, and, on the whole, Jakober’s writing lives up to the vision she serves. Although there are many battles, knightly jousts, and political in-fighting, the story also entertains the philosophical/theological arguments of the period as the Church battled all the manifestations of what it saw as sinful paganism.

What holds it all together is the narration, as an old monk, bitter at the loss of his hope for a Christian Empire, tries to write the story of what went wrong. The sorceress he has always feared places a geas upon him to tell the truth, not just what he wants to believe, and slowly, under his hand, a tale of love, honour, betrayal, and terrifying ambition unfolds. Here is the ultimate untrustworthy narrator, but part of his tale is the discovery of why he must be, cannot help but be, a liar. He cannot face the truth of his own love and life.

Set in an imaginary Reinmark, The Black Chalice presents three larger-than-life figures, as seen by a mind far too small for its own good: Karelian, a knight returned from the First Crusade full of doubts about the justness of a cause that brought about so much destruction and death; Raven, a priestess and sorceress dedicated to defending the old ways, the old gods, and the connection between humans and their world; and the Duke Gottfried von Heyden who believes he has discovered the truth about God’s plan (which involves his eventually ruling the world) among the hidden treasures of Jerusalem. The man who tells the story of their intertwined fates was once Karelian’s young squire, then a Crusading Knight, and finally a monk, hidden away from the sensual world he hates so much.

Jakober has done her research well: she brings a fine sense of the Church’s thought at the time, the ancient pagan beliefs, and the way people lived in the 12th century to her powerful adventure of souls in trial. There are those who know the single truth, and those who seek among the many truths with which life on earth, as opposed to afterlife is heaven, confronts them. There’s little doubt whose side she’s on, but she carefully allows both sides of this argument their say. Of course, in a novel, the passions and acts of people are finally more important than their philosophies. All the major characters must face moments where they can betray or steadfastly serve those they love, and it is in these choices that the novel’s moral vision comes most fully to life. Jakober’s narrative vision is strong: she offers vivid scenes of battle, romance, political scheming, wild magic, religious conflict, and love. The Black Chalice is essentially a tale of love and betrayal, centred on the never-ending battle between the gods of the sky with their contempt for the body, and the gods and goddesses of the earth, who always remind us poor humans that we belong here. It’s a sharply observed, passionately argued, exciting and compelling fantasy.

Read Another Review of Jakober's Black Chalice
(by Dave Duncan)

Go to Jakober entry in Author Listings.

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