A novella is by definition shorter than a novel but is it inherently less than a novel? With This Census Taker, the novella was intentionally a story with substantial omissions – gaps (holes? ravines?) constructed by the rest of story by the author for reasons (cryptic reasons). The actually full-novel-length Hugo nominee Too Like the Lightning was incomplete as a novel in a more direct sense – the story just stopping when it reached the back cover as if the printer had run out of paper. Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey I think also feels like an incomplete novel but in a more subtle way.
Wilson takes us back to the world he showed us in Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (which I thought I reviewed but I can’t find the post). The settings of both books are in an African-like continent or varied nations in an apparent fantasy setting but where magical gifts are actually the genetic inheritance of people who are partly descended from more science-fictional ‘gods’. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was set further into the history of this world, after the gods had left/transcended and where a few people have powers. This novella is set further back when the gods are still present but planning their change into more abstract beings. Both novellas though make interesting uses of language and setting to push conventions of fantasy setting it to places other than the clones of medieval or dark age Europe.
The story follows the character Aqib from young manhood to old-age using an intertwined sequence of flashbacks and flashforwards. Central to the story is Aqib’s first true love and sexual relationship, with a visiting soldier (Lucrio) from a Roman like allied nation to how own. Aqib is minor royalty or aristocracy and has a gift (actually a power as he later discovers) with handling animals and is charged with running the royal menagerie. However, the society that Aqib lives in is obe with both strict gender divisions and roles and is also deeply homophobic. Relations between men are punishable by death and are so scandalous that Aqib (as a young man) has little understanding of what his own sexuality might be.
The arrival of a visiting delegation from another nation changes this for Aqib. He and Lucrio fall deeply (but clandestinely) in love, only to be torn apart when Lucrio’s delegation leaves and Aqib decides not to go with him. During this same time, the mathematically gifted daughter of the king, Femysade, has decided that Aqib is the most suitable royal cousin to be her husband. Femysade, Aqib and later their daughter Lucretia have lives that then intertwine with both the fates of the gods and the capacity of some people descended from those gods (such as Aqib) to acquire powers. With science and mathematics regarded as purely the domain of women, Aqib’s understanding of events is partial and incomplete.
Others have called it a romance novel and I’m not familiar enough with the conventions of that genre to say that it is. However, I felt more this was a character study and a retrospective on a man’s life (as the story’s twisty ending further confirms). It looks at not just romantic/sexual love but other kinds. Aqib clearly loves his wife Femysade but not in the way she loves him. The story also focuses on his parental love for his daughter and his grandchild. More painfully there is Aqib’s love for his violent and abusive brother and his equally complex relationship with his father – both of whom attempt to force the societal norms on Aqib in different ways. Nor is the story lacking in substantial fantasy elements beyond the setting.
The writing is effective and characters are given depth of personality with economic efficiency. The worldbuilding is good (although here it helps if you’ve read the earlier novella otherwise the gods just appear out of nowhere).
Yet, it didn’t really work for me. Yes, it is good to see a man placed in a role in a story where they are essentially passive. It is also good that we have a protagonist who is a gay man and a man in a society other than some default European one. I’m less sure about the combination of the two – i.e. that the role of a passive protagonist buffeted by events and decisions beyond their control is placed on a gay black man. Yet, this is a complaint is unfair on what Wilson is doing – the problem arises from the overall lack of representation (and hence the lack of a variety of protagonists more generally) not with the writer who is doing something about that.
No, I think the story didn’t work for me, not because of the romance element (I found much of it quite moving – particularly the loss of Femysade) and not-quite the relative passivity of Aqib as a character. What I felt was that story needed more. Specifically, I felt like these where the chapter from a bigger, more complex novel that followed just one character arc in a complete story.
Putting the end twist aside, I felt the novella needed Lucrio’s and Femysade’s story as well and more on the events that were occurring around these characters. I felt frustrated not to see these things or why they were occurring. I guess partly because my taste in stories does prefer the nutty-nuggets of events as well as the intrigue of ideas. Wilson suggests that there are events occurring (around Lucrio’s delegation, around Femysade’s mathematical work with the gods) but places us in Aqib’s position of not being able to access those events. Now, that works in terms of giving us insight into Aqib’s world and it also connects with the story’s twist ending which centres on Aqib being a more active protagonist in some ways. However, while I can admire that craftwork it felt like I was missing out on parts of a bigger story (as indeed Aqib actually was).
So, definitely above No Award on my ballot but I found this novella actually more frustrating than the hermetic This Census Keeper. Having said that, I do feel Kai Ashante Wilson is circling around something that might be extraordinary. The two novellas I’ve read have both had elements of brilliance in areas where more successful stories fall short. Character, language and perspective are things he is tackling with originality and craft that I find impressive.