Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reviewish: A Taste of Honey

It was difficult to rate this book, given my usual standards that rely so much on the narrative voice and on how I might recommend a book to another reader -- which is why I'm thankful for a blog where I can discuss these things a bit more fully.

Cover for A TASTE OF HONEY by Kai Ashante WilsonIn both of those categories (narrative voice and recommending the book to others), A TASTE OF HONEY, by Kai Ashante Wilson, has some issues which I'll explain in a moment. In other ways, though, it shines. If I dismissed the first two, I would give it 4 stars, but I can't, and so 3 stars it is.

First, I'll talk about my issues with the text:

I had to keep making a lot of excuses for the story in order to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

Part of what I consider a good narrative voice's job is to make it easier for the reader to immerse and stay immersed in the world unfolding before them. This story has two things working against it in that regard; a nonlinear telling of the story (less of an issue, more my personal preference - so I don't really hold this against the book) and sudden shifts in jargon and slang. The narrator, a close third-person following Aqib, is the reader's primary source for language usage and it is a very poetic voice. It is interior to Aqib and sets the tone of the character overall. However, when it comes to dialogue, there were a few jarring shifts, particularly when it came to the Dalucan soldier, Lucrio. What makes it jarring is that Lucrio is speaking in Aqib's language, which sets up the expectation for what modes of expression are available to a speaker based on the narrator's voice. But Lucrio is so variable as to be distracting; he falls into diction and slang choices that are baffling.

Here's the first place I had to "make excuses" for
the narrative choices, in order to stay in the story. Aqib's experience of the language is from an upper social tier, leaving little room for expressions like "somebody's gotta learn 'em" and "looky there" and several other instances of a dialect shift akin to representations of Southern American English. But Lucrio is a foreigner, so I am able to consider that the dialect shift comes in from having learned the language from someone more on the level of a soldier or "menial" (the narrator's word, not mine). But as the narrative progresses, Lucrio's word choices come to match Aqib's more closely, with the occasional shift back to apparent slang, and some rather anachronistic-feeling swears. There's no explanation for these words or expressions and outside of a foreigner speaking the language native to the narrative, there's no framework for me - as the reader - to explain where they come from. The overall effect is jarring, at best.

Shorter version of this issue: Lucrio's sudden Southern American English dialogue is jarring in the context of the voice the narrator establishes for the story, ESPECIALLY because he is speaking Aqib's language and somehow has a full grasp of slang that we, as readers, have no foundation for accepting as part of the world-building aspect at this point. Nor do we see any other characters engaging in slang or modern Earth equivalent swearing. (There are two exceptions, neither provided with any context/explanation either, and given in isolation.)

The other matter is the overall disjointed feeling that there's some world-building missing. I found myself FREQUENTLY making the excuse, in a book club discussion, that this was a novella; it's shorter and there's a full length novel set in the same world, and SURELY these things that we experienced questions or gaps about were explained more fully and in more detail there. This became a mantra while reading. It is worth noting, however, that many reviews (even positive ones) describe this same feeling about the novel (Sorcerer of the Wildeeps).

That said, I still enjoyed this story and would recommend it for folks looking for second world/alternate Earth (I'm not sure which is the more accurate description because of the above mentioned gaps) that moves away from the northern European flavors so prominent in fantasy. The main character is homosexual and that is a key facet of the story without it being what the story is about. The intersections of identity that happen in the context of so small a story are complex and beautiful. There's love in its myriad forms; the struggle to navigate the ebbs and flows as they push and pull against each other feels like the heart of the story. There's joy and regret. Trust, betrayal, suspicion... a lot packed into such a small space.

The ending left me feeling a little cheated, initially, but also opened up the opportunity to more closely consider the whole text in a different way and left me curious about the world. It was a satisfying ending in many ways--an aspect so many texts fall short of achieving. Knowing what I know with the end's reveal, it certainly asks for a re-read.

I know that I will spend at least as much time thinking about and going back through the story as I spent on reading it the first time--and in my reading habits, that is one of the highest praises I can offer.

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