A man is taking a tame cheetah for a nightly walk when a foreign soldier calls out, “Hey beautiful!”
So begins Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey, a Tor.com novella that’s just been nominated for a Hugo Award. Like three of Wilson’s previous stories–Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Super Bass, and Légendaire—A Taste of Honey is not set in the pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European world that’s so often associated with the fantasy genre, but in some fantastical African-like empire, where seven-foot-tall demigods walk among mortals, and maths, physics and even literacy are seen, by the novel’s main characters, as bemusing “women’s things”. The novella unspools the life of Aqib, a minor noble and royal zookeeper, from the age of 20 to 89, juxtaposing chapters later in his biography with chapters set in the ten days immediately following his nocturnal encounter with the soldier. The latter’s name is Lucrio, and he comes from a world modelled after the Roman Empire, as suggested by his occasional Latin and references to his country’s warlike reputation. Most importantly, though, Lucrio’s culture accepts that men may love each other–and the novella’s strongest chapters are the ones describing Aqib’s romantic awakening, the way he learns to love, to love Lucrio, and to love Lucrio’s body.
A mystery clarified for Aqib, and not just concerning this long walk, this fraught conversation–not just tonight’s mystery, as it were–but the deeper one concerning his inmost self. Ah, this was why his wayward gaze alit so often on whom it shouldn’t, going back to peek howevermuch snatched away: those taut bellies and hard thighs of men heroically scrawled in scars. So yes, then: clearly two men could kiss! And what else might they do? Lie down together kissing, if they both wished it, and furthermore… unclothed?
But Aqib’s love for Lucrio is illicit, and must be kept secret. Not only is Aqib’s culture homophobic, but his family’s fortunes have fallen following a string of unambitious marriages. Aqib’s father, brother and sister wish him to marry a high-born woman so that they too may gain social advancement–in a nice twist to a trope made classic by Jane Austen. The story culminates with Aqib’s choice–does he stay and acquiesce to an arranged marriage, or does he leave with the love of his life?
Except–is what we read really what happens? Between a time-jumping structure, some magical demi-god trickery, and an unexpected ending, Wilson often blurs the line between dream and reality. The novella rewards repeated re-reads, as not everything will be clear on one’s first go, and it’s wonderful to see how all the different pieces fit together once you know what Wilson’s overall plan is. And, at about 160 pages, reading this story twice does not require much time.
Also–there’s so much to savour in Wilson’s prose. No one writes like him–no one crafts sentences in the same smart, oblique way, focussing on unexpected details and startling imagery, and no one mixes so effectively high-fantasy prose with sci-fi jargon, prose poetry, and even the occasional splash of modern slang. In this story, much of the slang comes from Lucrio, who, it turns out, learned Aqib’s language from a rather unrefined source–and contrasting Lucrio’s streetwise gutterspeak with Aqib’s elegant phrasings is such a brilliant and refreshing way of conveying Lucrio’s foreignness, so much more interesting than making him speak in broken or malapropistic English. And it’s also, often, very funny. Going back to the novella’s initial encounter between Aqib, Lucrio, and Aqib’s cheetah:
The soldier met him eye to eye. So, a man of only middling height; but he wasn’t slightly built, nor with a bird’s bones. The Daluçan was broad-shouldered and stout-muscled as Aqib’s own brother, and male cousins: warriors all. And when the soldier emerged from leaf-shadows under the bordering trees, into the clarity mid-boulevard, the features of his face showed unweathered and young. Like the lyric, his head was ‘a night without stars,’ which was to say, without a single pale strand compromising the darkness of his hair. Aqib guessed that he and this soldier were of an age, more or less: past a half-man’s initiation at fifteen years old, not yet come to a full man’s at twenty-five.
“Servus, pulchre! I’m–” Then the soldier saw, properly, the animal crouched beside Aqib. He jumped back with a yelp. “Whoa, that ain’t no dog!”
Read this book. It’s got romance, it’s set where no other story is set, it’s written in a language you won’t hear or read anywhere else, and it’s structured like ancient clockwork only the author knows how to assemble.