The Rich Fantasy of A Taste of Honey: A Review

A Taste of Honey (2016)
Written by: Kai Ashante Wilson
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 100 (Nook)
Publisher: Tor/Forge

Why I Chose It: Many reasons. That gorgeous cover, for one. The story is about two men of color, and that’s what’s on the cover. (Because publishers whitewashing book covers is a thing.) Also because I haven’t read much fantasy lately. And lastly because I wanted to read fantasy where people of color drive the narrative rather than show up as sidekicks, mystical magicians, and so on. Since Taste was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, I figured it might be just what I was looking for.

The premise:

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.

Spoilers: A few mild ones, perhaps.

Discussion: This novella — a successor to and set in the same world as The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, published in 2014 — has many strengths: the characters and their relationships; the setting and worldbuilding; dialogue and prose; and the overall themes of race, sexuality, and gender expectations. It’s also strong for what it lacks. Wilson’s story ranks as epic fantasy minus the epic page count and many of the tropes readers normally encounter in doorstoppers.

The story jumps back and forth between the ten-day-long forbidden love affair between Aqib, a distant member of the Olorumi royal family whose responsibility is to oversee the royal menagerie, and Lucrio, a Dalucan soldier who’s part of a peaceful mission in Olorum, and Aqib’s later marriage to a woman in the royal court, the Blessed Femysande. The parts are helpfully labeled; even so, I missed the first few shifts and was confused until I realized what was going on.

In Olorum, same-sex relationships are, ahem, actively discouraged; in Daluca it’s a way of life. Lucrio begs Aqib to leave with him to Daluca; but Aqib knows he must stay and marry — his chance at marriage is the only way to lift his family’s fortunes. And indeed not long after Lucrio’s ship leaves, Aqib is pledged to the King’s daughter, the Blessed Femysade.

Wilson’s prose drew me in and even though the beginning is a slow start. Lucrio meets Aqib as the latter is walking his cheetah, Sabah, down the road. It’s very dreamlike. Wilson’s language had me running to the dictionary a few times, which I loved. Normally that kind of thing takes me out of a story, but here I wanted to know more so I could keep going. The dialogue is distinct as well. Both Olorumi and Dalucan languages bear tinges of Latin: Lucrio refers to his sword as his gladium; Aqib initially refers to Lucrio with the honorific Dalucianus. As a country soldier, Lucrio’s dialogue sounds colloquial, yet rhythmic and lyrical, as if it is hip-hop centuries removed; as a member, however minor, of the Olorumi court, Aqib’s use of language is much more formal. Aqib is also used to bossing other people around, to Lucrio’s astonishment and sometimes delight.

I enjoyed the flipping of gender expectations. As a hero, Aqib is effeminate; he is not a fighter like his older brother, a captain in Olorum’s army; but rather he is revered for his dancing ability. Mathematics and so forth are considered womanly arts; Aqib’s wife, the Blessed Femysande, is eventually recruited by gods — who themselves turn out to be women. Aqib is also shorter in stature than his wife, her family, and his eventual daughter, Lucretia. It’s his arranged marriage to the daughter of the King that will raise his family’s fortunes — his destiny to marry above his station. This role is traditionally ascribed to women, of course. He isn’t a hero in the traditional sense at all, and so makes for a compelling character in a refreshing narrative.

Aqib’s interest in men is an open secret in Olorum; his father and brother keep him from going to Lucrio the night before the Dalucan embassy is set to sail home. Later, as the husband of the Blessed Femysande, Aqib makes certain he is always accompanied by an “entourage.” He never lets his gaze or his thoughts wander, remaining absolutely faithful — partly on pain of death, and partly because that’s who Aqib is. Only after his wife is recruited by the gods and his daughter Lucretia has her own child does Aqib let his thoughts turn to the life he might have had with Lucrio, which makes the story’s twist ending all the more sweet.

The worldbuilding is crazy. It’s impossible to pin down any one setting, but that did not detract from the enjoyment of the story; rather it added to it. Bears, cheetahs and buffalo all wander through the narrative; the Dalucans live across the mare magnum from Olorum; and the Blessed Femysade reminds me of Hypatia, the ancient Greek female philosopher and mathematician violently murdered by a Christian mob (although Femysade does not meet the same sad fate). The lavish cultures remind me of Axum and Mali, two rich empires that flourished in different parts of medieval Africa. Magic and science seem to co-exist, but also seem as though they are remnants of earlier civilizations.  In addition, telekinesis and telepathy play bit parts. Wilson packs everything in here, does it well, and wraps it all up in a hundred pages or so.

In conclusion:  Both the dreamlike twist ending and introduction serve to bookend a rich, complex fantasy story that is a joy to read. This is a lush, lavish story, to be enjoyed in and for all its aspects. I read it twice, just because, and then ordered Kai Ashante Wilson’s first book, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which establishes this world. I haven’t even read it yet, and I’m already hoping Wilson writes more stories set in Olorum or Daluca.

1 Comment

  • Shara White May 17, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    This review has me VERY interested in reading this novella. It sounds utterly epic, but so much packed into so few pages!


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