Although high born, one needn’t go round haughtily seeming so; Aqib quickly fixed his expression. “Of course it’s wonderful that the gods employ so many from Olorum on their estates. The food those menials grow, and the wealth they bring back cross-bayou to the Kingdom, has helped to make us Olorumi the richest and most prosperous of the world’s peoples”—true, but was that quite the politic thing to say, Aqib?—“though, naturally, the wonders of Daluz, your nation’s prowess at war, for instance, and the storied loveliness of your cities, have no match upon the sphere.”
The soldier laughed. “We’re for sure no courtiers, us two! Aqib, it really ain’t no need for you to get all mealy-mouth on my account.” It was such a nice laugh. Just as I do, Aqib thought, he lacks the forked or silver tongue necessary at court. Plain speech won’t offend him.
(The following post contains ending spoilers. If the above excerpt hasn’t scared you away from wanting to read this story, do that now.)
This story does not taste much sweeter than wine. I had a problem with this story almost immediately, because the prose is so jarring and wrong that it made me actively work harder to care about the characters. In most cases I’m not a stickler for prose at all; in cases where people complain about bland and lifeless prose, I focus on everything else as long as the words clearly communicate what’s happening. Kai Ashante Wilson isn’t content to do that, however. In telling a story about a young nobleman falling in love with a foreign soldier of the same sex, he’s trying to have a lofty feel to match Aqib’s cushy life. The problem is, none of it feels genuine and it’s inconsistently applied as well. Sometimes a character will use casual, vulgar, modern language out of nowhere, such as Aqib’s mental description of some laborers as “shit-ass malingering oafs,” his wife telling someone else to “stow the bullshit, maga,” and a mystic oracle, having just collected a blood price from a petitioner, telling him to “fuck off.” This is something I would expect from a Thunderdome writer on Something Awful, not a published author of genre who’s up for an award.
Leaving aside the jarring, atrocious attempts at purple prose, the story’s priorities are also odd and, in my opinion, come from a misplaced sense of priorities. Most of the story alternates between two different time periods. In the first, Aqib meets the love of his life, has hot, steamy sex with him, and chafes against the restrictive norms of his society, the pressures on him because of his family’s precarious position in the nobility, and the harsh way his brother and father treat him. Soon the narrative keeps shifting to a future where Aqib has married a talented woman who has caught the interest of the hyper-advanced people who are treated as gods by society in general. By now he’s settled into the role of a dutiful husband, and feels very protective of his daughter and grandchildren just like every parent should. The earlier timeline is more interesting because it doesn’t get bogged down in exposition about his wife’s prodigious mathematical talents (the characters in this world regard math as “women’s work”) and what the “gods” want of her, and because it turns out to be the only scenes that actually matter.
I say this because after the second thread ends with Aqib’s death of old age, the young, sexy version of Aqib processes that story in the cave of an eldritch oracle. The twist is that the half of the story where Aqib does what his family wants him to do and lives a closeted life, just as the first thread builds to the moment where he has to decide if he wants to run off with Lucrio or not, turns out to be an extended vision of what could have been, because in the real world he chose Lucrio. I understand the impetus behind this twist in theory; even before I remembered The Devil in America, I was convinced that this story would end in heartbreak, if not full on queer tragedy. It’s not a bad thing that this story ends with a gay couple living happily ever after, but rather that it tries to bait and switch the reader with a scenario that queer readers will likely find less palatable and more frustrating. What frustrates me is that there’s a scene where Aqib’s fake wife is chosen by the “gods” to perform math and psionics and all sorts of mystic work, a protracted worldbuilding segment that the ending reveals to have been a complete waste of time. Maybe this ties into something from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, but I got no indication that A Taste of Honey was a sequel and I expected it to be self-contained.
There are some interesting parts here and there, like the casual sexism inherent even in the gay protagonists and the imagery in the oracle’s cave, but for the most part this is a misfire. I know that Kai Ashante Wilson can do better than this; The Devil in America still gives me chills just thinking about it. If you like queer genre fiction and don’t think there’s enough optimism in it, you might like this story better than I did. I will continue to look for more of those stories myself, not just because I want genre fiction to be a better reflection of the real world, but also because I want there to be better stories in this niche than A Taste for Honey that I can recommend.