A Taste of Honey &
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
A Taste of Honey is a finalist in the novella category for both the 2016 Nebula and 2017 Hugo awards. It was the third published story set within the same milieu, although I'm uncertain of the chronology of each. First came the 2013 short story Super Bass, available to read free at Tor.com. I just read it, and I think it may be set prior to A Taste of Honey, but I'm not sure, nor does it matter. It does establish one social convention that is mentioned again in Honey, that same-sex relationships are accepted in the kingdom of Daluz. "Super Bass" is set in Daluz, in the harbor town of Sea-John, while Honey takes place in the larger kingdom of Olorum, in which such relationships have to be kept hidden.
Aqib bmg Sadiqi is a fourth cousin to the Olorum royal family, son and heir to the Master of Beasts and Hunting. He cares for all the animals in the Menagerie, his favorite being a pet cheetah. Aqib has an older brother, who is a corporal in the Olorum army, but is considered the favorite son due to the fact he is more eligible to marry into a prestigious family, which would in turn raise the prospects of marriage for his younger sister. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, covering the eleven days of a whirlwind romance between Aqib and the Daluçan soldier Lucrio, whose regiment is on temporary assignment in Olorum. These scenes are interspersed with ones from later in Aqib's life, after he turned down Lucrio's offer to travel with him to Daluz, deciding instead to marry the Blessed Femysade, youngest and favorite daughter of His Holiest Majesty, King of Olorum. Or did he?
I need to re-read this to be sure of what happened, what was real and what was only Aqib's dream. We read of his marriage to Femysade and the birth of their daughter Lucretia. Femysade later leaves her family for mathematical studies with god-like beings (aliens?), followed by Lucretia's maturation and independence in raising a child on her own without marriage. Throughout these segments, Aqib is haunted by dreams he cannot recall upon waking, of some event he thinks he should remember. There is a possibility that Femysade prompted her other-worldly patrons to excise the memory of Lucrio from Aqib's mind. Another reviewer seems convinced it is the marriage to Femysade that is the dream-like fabrication, and that Aqib did take Lucrio up on his offer. I'm not sure it matters either way for the enjoyment of the story, and perhaps Wilson intended it to be vague, to let the reader decide which future was right for Aqib. If I didn't have so many other things I need to read I'd dive back in now and see if I could spot clues I missed the first time, to determine which course was the correct one.
The prose is very lyrical, and Aqib is a fascinating character. He seemed genuinely in love with Lucrio, yet torn between his heart and his familial duties. In the later scenes he also seemed a devoted husband and loving father, leading me to conclude he was simply a good man, one who would have brought happiness to himself and others, no matter which road he walked. This one is recommended.
I don't have as high an opinion of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. I heard quite a bit about it last year, but several reviews persuaded me not to bother. Then in October, Tor offered the e-book free for one day only. It sat on my Kindle until recently, after A Taste of Honey got its nominations. I know it is set in the same universe, and at a later time, I'm just not sure how many years separate them. The main character is Demane, the sorcerer of the title, although he doesn't like that designation. He is near immortal, a descendant of the (alien?) gods mentioned above, although he is also part human. The 'magic' he learned is more akin to advanced technology than sorcery. These gods had lived in their own Towers, although they also intermingled and interbred with humans, and taught their technologies to the most worthy and intelligent. Later, the Towers were abandoned and the gods left Earth. Demane attempts to hide the process of the miraculous things he can do, preferring instead to be considered a talented healer.
The story encompasses only a couple of days, although there are flashbacks to earlier events, particularly of Demane's training, and his meeting with Captain Isa, leader of a caravan of merchants traveling from the Mother of Waters to the ancient city of Olorum. Their travels will take them through the dangerous Wildeeps, which is a bastardized abbreviation of The Wild Depths. There are vague mentions of a past event, which may have been caused by the gods' departure. The Wildeeps may be caught in a time/space warp, where prehistoric dragons (dinosaurs?) and jukiere (saber-tooth tigers?) roam the jungles on either side of the narrow road, a road that also seems to change course frequently and without warning. This was published before Honey, and I read it first, but I don't think it matters in which order they're read. Even though this is the longer of the two novellas, I felt it was not long enough, with too much time spent on the night before their departure from Mother of Waters, too little on their experience in the Wildeeps. The random time jumps in Honey were not distracting or confusing, since it was always stated when the events were happening, while at times in Wildeeps it was confusing when it felt like large chunks of text had been edited out.
The prose style is very inconsistent. At times it reads like something from Chip Delany, at others more like Robert E. Howard. Then came the dialogue from Demane's compatriots in the caravan, the part mentioned in early reviews that put me off, and in reading threw me right out of the narrative. This is supposedly a mythical place, maybe not even Earth, but if so then either thousands of years in the past, an alternate history, or in some vague future. So why do these guys sound like what you'd hear on the streets of Harlem or the southside of Chicago? I realize it was a way to distinguish between the social classes, but it was too anachronistic to be believable. I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from reading this, everything is subjective, and I might have a different opinion on re-reading. I was incorrect in a comment above. Wilson had a story in the tribute anthology Stories for Chip called "Légendaire," but it had first appeared in another collection early in 2013, a couple of months before "Super Bass" was released online. I don't recall it, and it wasn't among the ones I highlighted in that review, but it was set it this same universe. I need to check back on that, plus I look forward to others if Wilson ever revisits this world. A collection of all of them would be nice, especially if the author explains some of the things hidden between the lines. Whatever he chooses to write in the future, I'll be looking forward to it.
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