Kai Ashante Wilson’s 2016 A Taste of Honey is a stand-alone story set in the same universe as Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.
Aqib’s life has been charted out for him. For his family to regain the status they lost when Aqib’s father was tempted by love to marry far beneath him, Aqib must marry well. This is a sacrifice his family is more than willing for Aqib to make.
Man plans, gods laugh.
A chance encounter with handsome Lucrio, a visitor from far-off Dulacan, soon leads to a close friendship and more. Aqib’s stuffy, puritanical homeland Olorumi forbids love between men. Lucrio’s Dulacan in contrast has no problem with it at all. Experienced Lucrio is more than happy to share his knowledge with Aqib. After some trepidation, Aqib accepts.
In the short run, it is a happy arrangement. In the long run, less so. Aqib’s judgmental, violent brother will react very badly if he learns about Aqib and Lucrio’s affair. Not if. When. Aqib is at the bottom of the aristocracy but still of elevated rank. His world is filled with servants he barely notices. The servants take careful note of their masters’ behaviour and servants gossip.
Aqib could leave Olorumi with Lucrio when the Dulacan embassy returns home. That has its costs as well. Not only would he be abandoning his duty to his family but the gods themselves might intervene. The gods have their plans and unlike mortals, the power to ensure lesser beings play their assigned roles in those plans.
This certainly has a lot of fantasy terminology but the scenes with the so-called gods strongly suggest that this is actually an SF setting. Specifically, it is the sort of setting where a previous civilization had a Singularity and effectively vanished from human ken, leaving behind it their relics and lot of very confused heirs. The so-called gods are just people with Sufficiently Advanced technology salvaged from their predecessors and the mortals are the people with whom the gods keep in ignorance and servitude .
Wilson eschews a linear structure in favour of something more complicated. I was not always convinced he was in control of his story but he does manage to bring all of his plot threads together in the end.
I spent a lot of this story being annoyed at the social set up and many of the characters. The gods exploit their mortal cousins, and the mortal aristocracy exploits their servants and slaves. Aqib’s family saddles Aqib with the responsibility of rebuilding their fortunes, with a healthy helping of abuse to keep his eyes on the target. Aqib in turn treats his servants abominably. Even the central love story is problematic: the more the author reveals about Lucrio, the more deliberately predatory his interest in the smaller, effeminate Aqib appears.
The text is not particularly sympathetic with Aqib’s perspective. He compares himself to the rest of the aristocracy. In that context, he is at the bottom of the pecking order. Other people (and the narrative) see someone who can afford expensive sandals, someone who is definitely not poor. Aqib thinks servants have some sort of sixth sense that allows them to tell the well born from the rabble. It’s merely the ability to tell the difference between people who have never gone hungry and people who spend their lives a few meals from starvation. Aqib is too deeply embedded in his world to question it but it is clear the author is not.
Despite my reservations about the story, it did hold my interest. I am curious enough about Wilson’s world and his writing to seek out his novel.
A Taste of Honey is available here.
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1: It is true the gods modestly deny being gods and also true that they’re frank about the basis of their power. Nevertheless, somehow they have all the toys while their trading partners remain poor, superstitious and dependent on the gods.