Kai Ashante Wilson’s short novel A Taste of Honey is just as beautiful and peculiar and painful as his much-lauded The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. A Taste of Honey is set elsewhere in the same world, and while it doesn’t share the same characters or themes, it touches—slantwise—on some of the same concerns.
Aqib bmg Sadiqi is a fourth cousin to the royal family of Great Olorum, younger son and chosen heir to the Master of Beasts. An embassy from Daluça has lately come to Great Olorum, and Aqib finds himself caught up in a scandalous—and dangerous, for in Great Olorum sexual relationships between men are forbidden, as against the Saintly Canon—whirlwind romance with a handsome Daluçan soldier called Lucrio. They have met only ten days before Lucrio will return home with the rest of his embassy: how can their romance possibly last?
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps established Wilson’s claims to be one of the best prose stylists working in the genre today. There goes a man with a knack for some of the most gorgeous turns of phrase—to say nothing of his deep attention to building complex worlds, his very strong skills with characterisation, and his willingness to take on fraught and painful themes. A Taste of Honey shows his talents, if anything, increased—although fortunately for those of us who prefer our reading a little less gory, A Taste of Honey has less in the way of murderous violence and death.
(There is an outright abusive older brother. Aqib loves him anyway.)
A Taste of Honey isn’t told in strict chronological order, and if I am to discuss it with the thoroughness which it deserves, I will ruin the narrative trick which Wilson uses here to very interesting effect. But because this is a trick worth remarking on, and indeed is the trick around which the whole narrative hangs, I must discuss it.
For A Taste of Honey intersperses scenes from the ten days of Aqib’s whirlwind romance with scenes from years later in Aqib’s life—a life where Aqib has married to a woman well above him in the royal hierarchy, a mathematical savant; where he has a daughter who will grow into a very independent young woman (and one who, reading between the lines, may like women in much the same way as Aqib inclined to Lucrio); where, thanks to an intervention by his wife and beings whom Aqib considers as gods, he does not even remember Lucrio.
For the conclusion to Wilson’s narrative is not quite “It was all a dream.” At the end, it is revealed that Aqib has been having visions of the life he would have lived, had he not accompanied Lucrio when the Daluçan invited him to come away. The life he didn’t choose, the life he bargained with a Sibyl in order to see, in order to believe that he made the right choice. It is an interesting reversal, a subversive interrogation of queer tragedy as a trope. Until this moment, we’ve been reading about an Aqib who chose family loyalty above romance, a man who, whatever the satisfactions of his life, is nonetheless in some ways wounded by it—not crushed, but wounded. Another novel might have left it there, in loneliness and pathos and paths-not-taken: it is a common topos in stories about men who love men or women who love women.
But then, the reveal! The same Aqib, but a different life: we see two sides of the coin, for this is an Aqib who chose Lucrio and is glad, heartily glad even after seeing the life he would otherwise have lived; an Aqib who insists he would rather be where he is than anywhere else in the world.
I’m not entirely sure that it works, completely. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that it doesn’t. I do know that I’m glad to have read it.