Review: A Taste of Honey – Hugo2017 Novella

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.

 

Advertisements

15 comments

  1. Contrarius

    I loved this story, but your review has given me valuable insight and good things to think about that I hadn’t considered. Thumbs-up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cora

    “A Taste of Honey” is a love story, but it’s not a genre romance in the modern sense, since Aquib and Lucrio are apart most of the time and their actual romance makes up a fairly small part of the novella. It’s closer to what’s called women’s fiction – one person’s journey, which includes family and lovers, but is still focussed on one person – only that the protagonist is a gay man. Which brings me to the point that we really need another term for “women’s fiction” that encompasses similar stories about men.

    Anyway, as I said before, I quite liked this one, though it wasn’t without flaws.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Lurkertype

    I think we (or at least I) trashed this one in the other thread.

    I WANTED to like it. I really like romance, and gay romance, and swoony OTT gay romance. And a non-bog standard Western Europe setting is good. A black civilization. And women being in charge of math and science, yay!

    But yech.

    Much smaller than the sum of its parts.

    Wilson is congenitally incapable of sticking the landing of a story. I’ve never read one of his that had what I’d call a satisfying ending. I don’t mean happy ending, I mean a solid one literary-wise (I think? I went to engineering school, we didn’t do a lot of literary analysis, so my terms are vague). He needs a co-author with a solid grip on plotting to make the best use of his characters, settings, and language.

    I like character studies, but only when they’re characters I like or at least am interested in. I pretty much wanted to smack Aqib the whole time for being such a wimpy idiot (nothing to do with his sexuality or race, he’s just a whiny doofus).

    And as for the ending — GAH! After all the lovely world-building and characterization of the wife and daughter (the relationship with the daughter was just lovely), we get one of the oldest cliches in the book, where vg jnf nyy n qernz. And that’s in about one page, then the story ends.

    Oh HELL no, Kai. You never go full Shamalyan.

    Like

    • Contrarius

      Here’s the thing, though, about the ending: V qba’g guvax gur raqvat jnf erny. V guvax gur erfg bs uvf yvsr — gur bar ur yvirq frcnengr sebz uvf ybire — jnf gur erny bar, naq gur “unccl raqvat” vf uvf qlvat zvaq jvfuvat guvatf unq orra qvssrerag. Gung ur ernyvmrf nf ur’f qlvat gung ur jbhyq unir tynqyl tvira hc nyy gur fvtavsvpnapr bs gur yvsr ur qvq yvir (uvf cbjreshy jvsr naq bssfcevat) sbe gur fvzcyr cyrnfherf bs sbyybjvat uvf ybire nebhaq gur pbhagelfvqr.

      Like

      • Lurkertype

        I think so, too. But by that time I was so irritated with the story that I was all “Oh no you didn’t. You did! Cop out!” (eyeroll.)

        Also, I was all hmph that his qlvat jvfu vf sbe n qhyyre, fghcvqre yvsr. Which goes back to my wimpy idiot frustration.

        It was just a frustrating story IMO. Such a good overarching idea, nice command of language, wasted on… this doofus. With an MKS ending.

        Like

      • Contrarius

        @lurkertype — “Also, I was all hmph that his qlvat jvfu vf sbe n qhyyre, fghcvqre yvsr.”

        No, I think you’re missing the point there. Vg jnfa’g gung ur jnf jvfuvat gb yrnq n “qhyyre, fghcvqre” yvsr, ohg gung yvivat uvf yvsr jvgu uvf gehr ybir jbhyq unir znqr rirelguvat ryfr arneyl veeryrinag.

        But, again, I agree that he has problems with endings. Let’s hope he works on that in future stories!

        Like

  4. Contrarius

    @camestrosfelapton — Right. I agree that the story is a big letdown if gur raqvat vf uvf erny yvsr. But I don’t think it is. The possibilities for why it may not be make it a much more interesting story.

    I also agree, though, that Wilson has problems with finishing his stories. I thought the same about “Sorcerer of the Wildeeps”. Great story, questionable ending.

    Like

    • camestrosfelapton

      I think the ending to Sorcerer was worse than Honey.

      Having said that, endings are hard for Novellas. Shorts can end on a reveal or a twist. Novels can hit a high point but actually end more low key (tying up loose ends etc) without detracting from the story. Hard for Novellas to do either.

      Like

  5. Andrew M

    I liked this much better than Sorcerer; there I really had no idea what was happening; here there was at least a large story that was easy to follow, even if there were mysteries along the way. But various things remained puzzling. I feel we are meant to understand rather more about the gods than we actually do. And Aqib’s cbjre gb fcrnx gb navznyf – juvpu V gnxr vg vf jung gur tbqf znxr uvz sbetrg – vf pyrneyl vzcbegnag; ohg jul? (The conclusion suggests to me that the right interpretation – which Aqib does consider – is that obgu jbeyqf ner erny. I think that’s consistent with Sorcerer, too, though as I say, I don’t understand that. My feeling about the whole thing is that it would all make more sense if we actually had the shape of the world explained to us more fully.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lurkertype

      It did make more sense and had a more straightforward plot, I’ll give it that. But there’s room in a novella to do more worldbuilding explanation than he does.

      Maybe he’ll learn how to write endings someday.

      Like

  6. Pingback: Hugo Ballot 2017 – Novellas! | Camestros Felapton