A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson is a love story centering around Aqib, a Royal Cousin in the Kingdom of Olorum and Lucrio, a soldier and part of the Daluçan embassy. They meet and fall in love and this is a bit of a problem, because the men of Olorum are absolutely not supposed to have relationships with other men.
I liked this book a lot. It is, however, almost impossible to usefully talk about without spoilers, especially since I know that many people have very strong (and justified) feelings about reading yet another tragic gay romance, so I am going to tell you whether it has a happy ending or not in pale yellow so that you have to highlight it with your mouse to read it.
Aqib and Daluça end up together. This is less of a spoiler than it might seem, because while the story starts off by seeming to close that door, the entire structure of the story points to some sort of future for the pair, even as it seems more and more impossible. And when it is achieved, it is done in a way that was absolutely unexpected to me, and which worked on a lot of levels and without undoing what was already done, even when it seemed to.
Without touching the ending further, I will say that the story has an unusual structure, and leaps forward and backward in time quite a bit. We start with the lovers’ first meeting, then with their parting, and then we travel through Aqib’s life, but keep going back to the time the lovers spent together, so you sort of know that it can’t be a done deal even though it clearly is. The jumping backwards and forwards made it difficult for me to get into the story early on, but it quickly became quite absorbing.
What is interesting about this story is the character of Aqib (we don’t see Lucrio except through his eyes), and the worldbuilding. Aqib is very young at the start of the story. He is beautiful, rather sweet, and painfully naive. There is a sort of innocence about him which doesn’t really leave him even as he gets older. He is also very privileged, and astonishingly oblivious to it – I hesitate to say adorably so, but it really almost is. His society is very stratified, and he is in one of the top tiers, and at one point, Lucrio asks how the nobility can be recognized as such, and he answers, in utter sincerity, that they have a sort of glow or aura about them that everyone recognizes. The narrative shows Lucrio deciding not to touch that one, but also noting that nutritional levels, clothing and hairstyles may also have something to do with it…
One thing that I especially loved about this story is the world building. The Daluçans are basically the Roman Empire. They speak Latin (or something that looks very like it), and are warlike and logical and civilized, but clearly take a more benign view of homosexuality than the actual Romans did (having said that, I found that having read Holy Shit last year, I was able to translate a little bit more of the naughty Latin that I might have expected to).
The Olorum people are an African civilization, with an extremely structured and tiered society. The nobility are supposedly descended from the Gods – and this seems to be literally the case, only the Gods are really mortals with a longer lifespan and greater psychic and intellectual powers. Mathematics and physics and learning of all kinds are ‘women’s business’, and the business of men is war, which is a problem for the rather beautiful and feminine Aqib. Interestingly, while the women appear to be less powerful initially, there are a few disquieting instances of the power they actually hold, quietly and behind the scenes, and it’s pretty clear that they have much more understanding of how their world works than the men do.
I’m still toying with where I want to put this on the ballot. I mean, I know that if the ending had been different, it would definitely be going beneath McGuire and Ashanti Wilson, but since it does, it’s now vying with McGuire for first place. In terms of re-readability, I’d definitely read it again, but I’m not sure I’d read it again more than once. Which would put it behind McGuire. And, for that matter, Bujold, which I’ve re-read twice already. But is that the best way to rank it? I don’t know.