Some authors are masters of worldbuilding and Joanne M. Harris continues her reign as one them. Like the ever-present honeybees who buzz through her fantasy hybrid novel through stories, Honeycomb, carrying stories from world to world, protecting the Honeycomb Queen and her son, the Lacewing King, Harris constructs a magical universe, called the Nine Worlds and ruled by the insect-like Fae Silken Folk, as intricate as the beehives internal lives and delicate hexagonal walls.
As if each small room of the hive contains a small story, Honeycomb is comprised of mostly two-to-three page stories that begin as if wholly separate beings and as the book continues on, we see a cast of complicated, beautiful, and terrible recurring characters, all centering around the Lacewing King as we follow him on his adventures and his own complicated emotional maturity throughout his life of near immortality. Amplifying the book’s magic even more are the illustrations of Charles Vess, who never ceases to delight fantasy lovers with his whimsical, flowing art.
Honeycomb is a book to savor slowly at first, as the individual story chapters may be short but they are many and contain miniature worlds within themselves. Separated into two parts, Book One: Long Ago covers the Nine Worlds’ main founding myth, that the stories first came from the elusive dreamflower, where a swarm of bees found it and brought its powerful nectar back to their young queen. As the honeybees sing their haunting refrain, “Long ago and far away,/Far away and long ago./The Worlds are honeycomb, you know;/The Worlds are honeycomb” throughout the entire book, we see the birth of the Lacewing King and how he grows into a petty young man whose arrogance and cruelty earns him powerful enemies such as the Spider Queen, whose crown of eyes he steals, and she vows to find a way to break his heart, no matter the cost.
The king’s broken up, nonlinear narrative is peppered with a variety of other Nine World stories, some fashioned as fables such as the recurring farm and its troublemaking animals, reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with others involving the Sightless Folk, what the Silken Folk call the mundane humans and their own often arrogant and selfish exploits. Harris creates her own mythology with the humans, who though the Silken Folk do not interfere with their daily lives, still make impetuous and ill-thought out actions that lead to their own, or another’s, undoing. In that, they are the cautionary folk tales and stories that warn humans of the worst excesses of their own natures if left unchecked. She also often embeds the tales involving the human folk and animals with a humor that keeps some of the darker aspects of Harris’s Nine Worlds and its inhabitants’ darkest aspects, such as constant war, theft, and torture. Though the humor itself can be dark, as well.
In “The Puppeteer,” a brilliant puppet maker who becomes wealthy and famous from his creations is overcome by his paranoia of people and creates puppets to spy on them, eventually losing his own soul; “The Troublesome Piglet” features a piglet who yelled at all the other animals for no reason other than it liked to yell and create problems until one day it found itself on the farmer’s plate; in “Death and the Artist,” a renowned artist makes a deal with Death for his work to be immortal, thereby stealing the lives of any subject he paints, whether a flower or another person.
The world of the Silken Folk is also rich with its own mythology. Harris assigns each type of insect with its own clan and rulers, though the Lacewing King rules them all. Many are at war with each other at different times such the ladybugs (or ladybirds in British English), who are fierce predators and are ruled by the deadly Harlequin, who was once the queen of Death, and whose eyes are mirrors to all the worlds. In an encounter, the Lacewing King also earns her enmity, which will haunt him through the book. In “The Wasp Prince,” the Lacewing King grants the desperate wish of a woman to have a child, who is later left alone when the villagers turn against his mother and kill her. After he wreaks his vengeance on the villagers with the King, he is left to wander off and finds himself in the clutches of the Spider Queen.
In “The Girl Who Loved the Silken Folk,” the Lacewing King begins a dalliance with a girl who falls in love with him and, when they’re discovered he disappears, in her desperation to see him again, she cuts off her own eyelids. The girl later gives birth to his child, who he never knows, but when he discovers his granddaughter, the Lacewing King finally begins to soften his heart, leaves her in his palace, and leaves to wander the Nine Worlds again until he finds himself in peril and his granddaughter, the Barefoot Princess, goes to help him, with the aid of Spider Queen.
In Book Two: Far Away, Harris spins new worlds beyond the Nine Worlds and begins to tie together the myriad of stories and characters from the first book, becoming a much more linear narrative. The Lacewing King, who has lost his memory, and the Barefoot Princess have fallen through the Spider Queen’s web into strange lands and must find their way back to each other. These worlds are more mixtures of both contemporary and older societies, an amalgam of real and imagined. The Barefoot Princess must ride a train to Death and make the bargain of her life and the Lacewing King only regains his memory after he is blinded by the Moth Queen of that world. This part is much faster paced, traditional fantasy narrative and winds into a fitting ending.
It’s also important to state that, while I appreciated that the islands in these worlds are populated by some people of color, though there still remains an erasure of Black people throughout the book and still a sense of othering of the non-white people, though not as oppressive as many other authors. Harris is also reduced to a bit of a one-dimensional, white Christian view of women from Muslim-like cultures who leave their oppressive lives to become mermaids. It’s a bit of a hard thing to swallow, however, to feel only slightly represented in a book that is otherwise wonderfully crafted book. That said, the Nine Worlds hold no people of color, and the white imagination once again is unable to contain true inclusion. Besides feeling nearly invisible in the world of fantasy, however, Honeycomb was a beautiful, intricate book of interwoven tales.
Honeycomb is available from Gallery / Saga Press.
Angela Maria Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, was a 2018 Kirkus Fiction Prize judge, and has work forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Pilgrimage, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Third Wednesday. You can find her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua or at duendedistrict.com.