Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

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Publication date – April 28, 2020

Summary: From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.

Thoughts: I’ve been a fan of Chorn’s writing style since reading Seraphina’s Lament in 2019. She has a brilliant evocative style that drew me in, turning emotions into landscapes in a way that felt downright poetic. That same style is evident in Of Honey and Wildfires, though I found that this one had a much stronger focus on the narrative than Seraphina’s Lament. It might be because her first novel dealt with events happening on a massive scale, changing how the very world worked, whereas here, the story has a narrower focus. One small area, a few primary characters. It’s a different scope, but Chorn deals with it just as well.

Of Honey and Wildfires is a fantasy Western, at its heart, taking heavy inspiration from the American West during the 1800s. The setting is Shine Territory, a place where shine is pulled from the world and is infused into everything. Shine is like magic, only with a physical form. Add some shine to food and it will taste better. Use it to make ammunition for guns. Give undiluted shine to a person and grant them temporary psychic powers, but also make them terribly addicted. Shine production and distribution is controlled by Shine Company, and is a blessing and a curse for pretty much everyone involved with it. Life gets better with it, but at the cost of the lives of those who mine it or pulls it up from wells.

Your basic capitalist scheme that values profits over people, basically.

While I don’t think that Chorn intended to write a book about worker exploitation specifically, that element is definitely present in the text, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore. One of the protagonists, Arlen, is the son of the head of Shine Company, sent out to Shine Territory to further company interests, sees firsthand how brutal lives of the company’s workers can be. Children in the mines, company propaganda about how kids working is a good thing because they help take care of their families, the benefits given to the people who agree to become addicts for the company’s sake… It’s not a pretty world, and the company byline clashes with the brutal reality of the situation, and early on the weight of the situation comes crashing down around Arlen’s head. He recognizes that his life has been immensely privileged, living off the benefits of an exploitative system, and the real meaning of that hits home when he sees the people who are being exploited for his comfort.

Arlen’s viewpoint isn’t the only one followed in the novel. There’s also Cassandra, daughter of an outlaw who works to shut down Shine Company, sent to live with extended family to keep her safe. Cassandra’s childhood isn’t an easy one, being markedly different from the people in Shine Territory, and also having a known outlaw for a father, but she’s a fascinating character, strong and stubborn and devoted to the things and people dear to her.

Cassandra’s one of those characters to whom things happen, whereas Arlen is one who has greater impact on the events he takes part in. True, Arlen still gets dragged along for rides now and again, but his is definitely the more action-oriented viewpoint, whereas much of Cassandra’s story involves the simple telling of a complicated life. Her narrative is compelling, to be sure, since she occupies a rather unique place in the world, but in many ways, hers is a more passive role. She could have been removed from the story as very little would have changed, since most of the main story elements were in the hands of Arlen and Chris, Cassandra’s father. The narrative would be poorer for her absence, since her tone and style are quite different from Arlen’s, but if her chapters were removed, most of what readers would lack would be context. Cassandra’s chapters are the emotional connection in many ways.

Now, I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this, to be honest. In one way, Cassandra’s character dips into some problematic territory. Her relationship with her best friend Ianthe ends somewhat tragically (this is foreshadowed heavily early on, so it’s not a massive spoiler to say so, I figure), which adds her to a large list of “queer characters who lose their lover in a tragic fashion.” Combined with her more passive role in the story, especially when compared to Arlen, it’s easy to categorize her as “a woman who isn’t really necessary to anything.”

But as accurate as those criticisms may be, they also do a disservice to Cassandra’s character. She may have a more passive role in the tale, but her parts of the story are still interesting. With her, you get context. You get to see how many people in Shine Territory live, what their lives are like, what their concerns are. I love reading this sort of thing. One of my earliest complaints with learning history in school was that we always got taught the big events, the major players in how things changed, but we never got anything about how the general populace lived out their lives. Wars occurred to determine who sat on a throne, but for your average labourer, their lives went on as they always did, and I wanted to know about those lives. That is, in essence, Cassandra’s viewpoint. She gives that everyday context that provides the counterpoint to Arlen’s experiences, and yes, I know that “woman who exists to further a man’s story” is also a damaging trope, but I don’t think Cassandra quite falls into that one, since she can absolutely carry her own story.

It just happens that her own story had less action and less impact to Shine Territory in the end. But it was no less interesting than Arlen’s, and I think it’s a testament to Chorn’s skill with writing that she can create a character who has less impact but is nevertheless just as compelling to read about.

I don’t know if there’ll be any more to Cassandra and Arlen’s connected story. Of Honey and Wildfires could be a standalone novel and work perfectly, a short glimpse into a fascinating aspect of a fantasy world that isn’t any more than it needs to be. At the same time, the world and characters are interesting enough that I absolutely want to see more, to see what has changed now that this book has ended and Shine Territory isn’t what it was in the beginning. It feels like there could easily be more stories set in the world, and I’m down for reading them. If the true tale is only beginning, I want to be there at the end. But I could still be satisfied with this one novel, if that’s all there needs to be. I do enjoy books that can stand on their own merits without needing to be half finished or give cliffhanger endings to keep me interested, and Of Honey and Wildfires definitely checks that box.

If you enjoyed Chorn’s other work, then you’ll similarly love this one. It’s an engaging story in an uncommon fantasy setting, and it’s written with the same beautiful and evocative style that I’ve grown accustomed to with Chorn. This is a novel that deserves a place on your bookshelves, with plenty to say and a compelling way of saying it. Do yourself a favour and dip your toes into this Western-inspired shine-soaked world that is sure to make an impression.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

2 comments on “Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

  1. Pingback: [Guest Post] Sarah Chorn, on the LGBTQ+ History of the Wild West | Bibliotropic

  2. Pingback: April 2020 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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