Review: Of Honey and Wildfires
So this is another of those self-published reads that I picked up during my recent bout of “Ooh. Shiny” that came while reading Rob J. Hayes’s ALONG THE RAZOR’S EDGE (EBR Review). The connection is that the author of this book, Sarah Chorn, edited Rob’s book. In fact, she edited his entire series and then, post editing, proceeded to gush about it on social media, and I just couldn’t say no to it after all the good things she had to say. In addition, I’d come across her previous (first) book, Seraphina’s Lament, multiple times before, but never read it. I’ve since picked that one up as well and stuck it into my TBR pile. This one was hot on the radar though because of the nearness of its publication date, and so I picked up a review copy from her and dove in.
OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES is a stand-alone story set in an alternate western United States that is powered and directed by a magical version of coal and oil, called Shine, that the present world obviously lacks. Amidst this backdrop, an enterprising businessman, Matthew Esco, makes some lofty sacrifices in order to grasp ultimate control over the west and its resources and build an empire that will stand for centuries to come. The people living in the west, among the rich sources of Shine, are separated from those in the east by a magical barrier that is only permeable to those people that first imbibe a strictly controlled elixir, made by Mr. Esco’s company. In addition to this, the western population, because of how intimately Shine is integrated into everything that they do, have evolved somewhat to have very vivid colorings of skin, eyes, and hair.
The main storyline revolves around two characters. The first, Cassandra Hobson, is the daughter of a revolutionist. Her father, Christopher, is fighting against the massive machine that is Matthew Esco’s empire. He can’t abide the way the people of Shine Territory are exploited. Their men, their women, and their children, all, and the only route he has available that will get any appreciable attention is through violence. After losing his wife and two children, he turns to a life on the run, and he can only handle raising his last daughter, Cassandra, for so long before the threat to her life drives him to leave her with another: his sister. Cassandra’s story begins at age 5 as she is left by her father with her aunt’s small family, and takes several 5-year jumps as the book progresses. Her story deals mostly with growing up in a family that is not her own, dealing with the intolerance of others because of who her father is, and finding true friendship and eventually love with a neighbor.
The second POV is Arlen Esco, scion of Matthew Esco, who has been sent out west to learn more about his father’s empire and locate a likely spot for some upcoming expansion. He’s accompanied by two employees of his father’s business, one of them a bodyguard, and is very excited for his first opportunity to see the foundation upon which his father’s empire has been built. His timeline covers a period of about two weeks and the story bounces between his and Cassandra’s POVs, and a few short entries from a few others.
I love when I can sit down and knock out the details of the story as easily as I have done so here. Remembering specifics like first and last names, and story arcs, and relaying the “big picture” kind of stuff without having to go back and lookup any of those details along the way. It means that the author has done something right, and that is definitely the case here. She was able to relay the story that was within her mind out onto the page and into my head in such a way that a large part of it stuck. Which is the job description, in my opinion, but isn’t always the case.
While reading the story, it was immediately apparent how talented the author is as a writer. The prose is elegant and complete, frequently drifting into what I’d term “beautiful” prose. Although, where beautiful prose so frequently ends up distracting me from the important parts of the book — the characters and their storylines — that wasn’t the case here. In fact, it made the reading experience all the more enjoyable because of it, which, I find, is a rare talent to have. Especially when it comes to stories that have been self-published. Although, with her long-time experience as an editor, this fact is somewhat less surprising.
The world portrayed is well-wrought and well-enough detailed around the story of interest that I seldom felt myself needing more. It’s obvious, for instance, that there is an entirely different type of society that lives in the east, where Arlen Esco is from, but we don’t end up getting a lot of detail from his life there. I count this as a good thing, as the important part of the world is in the west, where the story takes place and what it is concerned with. We see the pieces that affect Cassandra’s life and build Arlen’s perception of his father’s empire, and that is enough for now.
The characters and their journeys were the strongest points of the novel for me. There are developments and turns to the story that were just solid. I did frequently feel like they could have been somewhat better. Some tweaks to the backstory or the development of the scene that could have really enhanced the character moments and made them even more powerful, but the fact that they were there and as affecting as they were was satisfying for me.
OF HONEY AND WILDFIRES has an old western feel and a strong character arc that will leave fantasy readers less picky than myself incredibly satisfied.
The weakest aspect of the story, for me, was the world-building surrounding Shine. There seemed to be so many different aspects to what Shine was used for, and what it would do, and how it would affect people, that I lost most of my interest along the way. It felt a little too generic. Too catch-all. Almost like a version of DMSO or Snake Oil that actually did the things that the salesmen always claimed it to do. So instead of being a high point of the story, it became just another part of the background and I took what I got from the story at face value.
At this point you are perhaps wondering why I rated the story so low when such a large part of my review has been positive. I have to admit to a decided split in my perceptions of this book. On the one hand, it’s a very well-told story about two individuals living in this alternate American west as they learn so much about themselves, their families, and the world that has been built around them. But I didn’t really feel like the major storylines were ever strongly dependent upon the fantastical elements. In other words, it felt like the main story could have still been told without the fantastical elements. So, while the story itself was very good and contained some really great character moments, the *fantasy* story told was only rather mediocre. This is, perhaps, somewhat harsh, but it is who I am, and I have to stick to my guns, yeah? (Corny wild-west reference notwithstanding.)
The fact of the matter is that for those readers that aren’t as picky about their fantasy fiction as I am, I think they’ll find a very satisfying read here. Especially those that are looking for a well-written LGBTQ+ fantasy story. Very well-done and very impressive. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.
- Recommended Age: 16+ for profanity and thematic elements
- Language: Occasionally strong
- Violence: Some large-scale death and threat of violence, but most of it happens off-screen
- Sex: A few references