A Taste of Honey: A love story with a very particular style

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A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante WilsonA Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante WilsonA Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Another 2016 Nebula nominee today, this time for best Novella. A Taste of Honey (2016) is set in the same world as a previous work by Kai Ashante Wilson, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which I confess I have not read (it’s not necessary for the understanding of this story, though it may provide some useful background to the setting and its institutions).

At its heart, A Taste of Honey is a love story between two men from different lands — wealthy nobleman, Aqib, from Olorum (where the story is set), and battle-hardened warrior, Lucrio, from Dalucan. The story moves through time, alternating between two paths. The first charts the start of Aqib and Lucrio’s relationship in the days leading up to Lucrio’s departure from Olorum. It is an intense and passionate affair, condemned to secrecy, for homosexual relationships are considered shameful in Olorum. Aqib is frequently told that his family’s reputation and financial comfort depend upon him marrying a woman of high-standing and he is forced to contend with his violent brother and oppressive father. The second story-line leaps forward to reveal passages of Aqib’s future.

Kai Ashante Wilson has played with his world in interesting ways, twisting stereotypes on their heads. This is a land in which physics and maths are considered “women’s work” and it is the male in the family who must secure a favourable match through marriage. That said, male superiority is certainly not absent. Yes, the women can read and the men cannot, but that is only because women lack the brainpower to remember things without having them written down. Also interesting, and unusual, is Wilson’s choice of a markedly “soft” male protagonist; an uninterested and incompetent fighter who chooses instead to specialise in dance and practices a close connection to nature. Readers of fantasy will be more accustomed to seeing characters like Lucrio take centre stage but here, it is Aqib who we follow most closely. He is a complex character, playful and likeable but also prone to using his high social-standing to excuse petulance and vanity. Wilson’s positioning of non-white characters at the fore also means A Taste of Honey is not the usual fantasy fare.

As the plot develops we learn that some of Olorum’s citizens possess magical abilities but that these vary dramatically; on the one hand are powers that allow connection and communication with animals and on the other a precise, scientific, “female” magic.

I appreciated all of these quirks, but I was not so convinced by the really distinctive feature of A Taste of Honey — that is, Wilson’s very particular use of language and style.

Wilson has evidently made a conscious effort to craft characters who speak in the vernacular. While Lucrio is casual and breezy, “Not ‘less you sic her on me … I’d be shit outta luck then,” Aqib is often formal and flowery, resulting in dialogue that is purposefully disjointed. In the prose too, Wilson has a distinctive style. He employs unusual sentence structures and curious punctuation (in particular he uses a lot of colons).

At times I thought this writing beautiful:

Alongside the boulevard, there was a whole length of hedge round some rich merchant’s compound blooming. Night-bees swarmed over the huge blowsy flowers, white phosphoresced in the moonlight. As drafts cause candle-wicks to brighten, so did the glimmering of the night-bees flare while they drank nectar, then dim at liftoff to the next blossom. 

But at others it made for a challenging read. A quick glance at other reviews reveals that Wilson’s language and writing style is a love it or hate it affair. Though I don’t fall firmly into either camp, I am inclined to lean towards the latter. It took me a lot longer to read A Taste of Honey than it would usually take to read another work of similar length and I found myself reading sentences back to make sense of them. So much so, I began to question whether it was just me experiencing a particularly slow day (always possible).

All in all then it was an interesting ride, but not a smooth one.

Published in 2016. A Taste of Honey is the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus finalist novella that N. K. Jemisin calls “a love story as painful as it is beautiful and complex”. One of BookRiot’s “Best Books We Read in November.” Long after the Towers left the world but before the dragons came to Daluça, the emperor brought his delegation of gods and diplomats to Olorum. As the royalty negotiates over trade routes and public services, the divinity seeks arcane assistance among the local gods. Aqib bgm Sadiqi, fourth-cousin to the royal family and son of the Master of Beasts, has more mortal and pressing concerns. His heart has been captured for the first time by a handsome Daluçan soldier named Lucrio. In defiance of Saintly Canon, gossiping servants, and the furious disapproval of his father and brother, Aqib finds himself swept up in a whirlwind gay romance. But neither Aqib nor Lucrio know whether their love can survive all the hardships the world has to throw at them. A Taste of Honey is a new novella in the world of Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

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KATIE BURTON, who joined us in September 2015, is a solicitor in London and now an aspiring journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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