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.
Rather than a review, this will mostly be a list of the things I loved about Kai Ashanti Wilson’s novella A Taste of Honey. What did I love? I loved the opening paragraph. I loved how accurately Wilson captured the giddy, breathless, spin-around-‘til-you’re-dizzy aspect of first love or even physical infatuation. I loved the world of Aqib, what we see of it, and the hints and clues we get of the bigger world beyond his, a world with ascended beings who are virtually gods, of satellites, AI and magic.
I love the way Wilson chooses to tell his story, moving through time in a series of snapshots, which lets him cover eighty years in a life with a pretty slim page count.
I love Aqib and the way the selfish choices of his father and brother, who chose to marry for love instead of duty, puts the responsibility for uplifting the family’s status squarely on his slender shoulders. I love the gender-based division of labor in Aqib’s world and how at first Aqib swallows the rationalization that women learn reading and writing because their memories aren’t sufficient to retain information (which ignores that fact that they are also the mathematicians and physicists). I love Aqib’s daughter, and I really liked the ruler’s daughter Femysabe, even though I’m not sure I’m supposed to. For me she was one of those supporting characters in a piece who appears and, temporarily, steals the show.
I believed Aqib’s struggle with family loyalty versus sexual love and the way Wilson uses Aqib’s foreign lover Lucrio to open a window onto the truths of Aqib’s family. Aqib’s bullying brother is not a great fighter and soldier; his loving father has been manipulating him since childhood. Neither of these revelations make the men any less his family, and Aqib’s struggle is real and heartbreaking.
Mostly, though, I loved being allowed to travel through this strange and fully-realized world.
The difference between a five-star book and a four-and-a-half-star book for me is often small, hinging on a detail, and in this case, while I loved everything about A Taste of Honey I had to question the ending. I’m still not sure if it is the ending that grows organically out of this story. That’s my only reservation.
I had not read anything by Wilson before this book. I plan on correcting this. This is beautiful writing and a fascinating world. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.