Thursday, February 23, 2017

Weird & Wonderful- A Taste of Honey

Another T. Sean Steele poster
For the February meeting of City Lit Books Weird & Wonderful club, we discussed Kai Ashante Wilson's 2016 novella A Taste of Honey.

Set in the same world as Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015), A Taste of Honey is a kind of interrupted romance—chapters alternate between the 10-day affair of Aqib & Lucrio and the 7 decades of Aqib's life afterwards. There's magic here, gods and strange technologies, but the story focuses entirely on relationships.

Interesting discussion and unusually mixed reviews. Notes and possible spoilers below:

(By the way, I should note that I wrote a fairly effusive review of A Taste of Honey last year; I'll try not to belabor those points.)

We started out from the end, talking about the title in the context of the final segment, with the Sybil claiming her price for giving Aqib his vision. The ending cements the story as being about choices—forking paths—which is interesting since for most of Aqib's story it doesn't seem like he has much in the way of choice.

One of the biggest things we noted about the novella is that there's a lot going on, though often sort of glancingly and peripheral to Aqib's story and interests. The way "women's stuff" is dismissed or avoided by the men, for instance—really interesting when the women's stuff here is clearly advanced mathematics, philosophy, and near-magical technology. A few folks were suprised to discover that this is essentially a standalone work (set in the same world as Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, but with no real plot connection)—Wilson is using what I find to be a pretty deft worldbuilding technique, implying a much larger history. The book's back cover, for instance, sets the tale as "before the dragons came to Dalucan", an event we never learn more about.

Much discussion about the language here, which some folks thorught was very stripped down and overly-earnest (not a quality we tend to applaud; see for instance our discussion of The Humans), and contrasted with the cynicism of We Who Are About To... However, others thought that the language isn't simple/earnest so much as restrained, with a kind of bitterly total self-control one of Aqib's main characteristics as he ages. Much debate over the polyvocal features here—the inclusion of secondary language, and Lucrio's use of vernacular. Some found it really annoying, while others liked the way it played with class issues, both within the story—Lucrio vocally checks Aqib's privilege at several points—and at a meta-level: most writing generally, and SFF in particular, pretends not to have a dialect (thus conforming to a particular standard of dialect, with class/race/education assumptions), so to have a story that juxtaposes different dialects like this is jarring and intriguing. (It's much stronger in Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by the way.)

We spent a lot of time circling around Aqib's life and choices—what to make of his marriage, how much weight is carried by the "loss" of his daughter. There's a lot going on here looking at the male experience—we were really struck by Aqib's relationship with his brother & father, and how Lucrio shifts that balance with just a few observations—and the cost of closeting and social repression.

We noted that A Taste of Honey parallels a lot of the structure and interests of Jo Walton's My Real Children, a Weird & Wonderful pick a while back, and also compared the worldbuilding to The Left Hand of Darkness (which we read in January): lots accomplished by briefly mentioning ideas and facts about the world, even if they aren't pursued further. Also compared this to some of Samuel R. Delaney's work, which in turn led into talking about Gamergate & Puppygate—black queer SFF being about as far from the weird fascist resurgence as you can get.

We also talked about other Tastes of Honey, including Shelagh Delaney's play and it's 1961 film version. Also noted that if you're looking for this book online you definitely want to include the author name in your searches.

Usually at our book discussions, we wind up with a rough consensus on our selections, maybe with an outlier on one side or the other—but I felt like we were unusually mixed on this one, with some people really liking it and others not digging it.

Aside from all stylistic criticisms & preferences, I'm wondering if some of the points against owe to its novella-length. Very unscientifically, I have this theory that the SFF novella's current rise (tons of great stuff at shorter lengths, particularly facilitated by ebooks and publishing houses like Tor) is running oddly up against a reader base that is mostly alienated from fiction magazines (so less exposure to shorter lengths) even as meganovel series have become the norm. Hm.

For next time, we are reading Wool by Hugh Howey. We've also made our next three picks:
  • April: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  • May: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
  • June: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
As always, check out City Lit Books for many other book discussions and events.

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