I sat down on a recent Wednesday night to start reading Of Honey And Wildfires. This would be my third read for Self-Published Fantasy Month and the first book from Sarah Chorn I’d ever read. I was relaxed, in a good mood, and looking forward to the read because I’d seen nothing but great reviews for Sarah’s books. But I also knew from those reviews that I might be in for some feels. Reader…I wasn’t prepared.
I only managed to finish a few chapters and had to stop. I couldn’t read anymore. I just couldn’t. I had to set it down and walk away. Why you ask? Well…my post to Twitter was this…
“Holy f—! If I could write a review of just the first Cassandra chapter. I’m gutted. I want to quote half of it. Deep breath and maybe a drink before I carry on.”
Yep. Gutted. And the book had just started. It just hit me hard. I seriously got up, poured myself a finger of bourbon, sat down and sipped a while. I don’t claim this was healthy, but <sigh> I did it anyway. I was thinking of picking the book up again but Sarah replied to my comment with this…
“Brace yourself. Writing this book flayed me emotionally.”
So I stopped for the night.
It isn’t often that an author has an impact with their writing and use of language and emotion in such a short span of pages. Those kinds of authors are out there. Alix E. Harrow comes to mind. But they don’t show up every day and plop down in your favorite reading chair with you and settle in. Sarah Chorn did it on that Wednesday night and I was wrecked.
“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.” – Goodreads Blurb
Of Honey And Wildfires will take you on an emotional journey. It’s a book about pain and loss and mourning. It’s also a book about discovering yourself and fighting for what is yours. It’s the kind of book I really love; the kind that takes you through the wringer a bit, makes you think about your life and it’s highs and lows, then sets you down afterward to let you ponder what was, what is, and what can still be.
Characters And POV
The story is told from three points of view. The first is that of Cassandra, the daughter of a notorious outlaw who is sent to live with relatives at a young age. The second is Ianthe, a young woman suffering from consumption and Cassandra’s best friend. The third is Arlen, the son of the mogul who owns and controls all of Shine Territory. Cassandra and Ianthe’s narrative is told in the first person and Arlen is told in third person which makes for an interesting read and interpretation. I have a guess as to why this was done but I’m holding back so as not to give what may be a spoiler.
“You have made me out to be a monster. I ask, what is a monster if not a warning against the dark? I have done you a service. Perhaps you will recognize that, someday.” – Cassandra p. 7
Chorn takes these three points of view and and weaves them together in an interesting way. All three begin the story from different timeframes and work their way up to the present. Cassandra starts at age five, Ianthe at ten days ago, and Arlen at two weeks prior. Little by little each narrative makes it’s way to the present and fills in a tragic backstory until they come crashing together at the end.
Interspersed with these points of view are additional short “interview” chapters, where characters are speaking to some unknown interrogator about some event the details of which are uncertain. It all combines to convey the sense that something of importance has happened but you’re uncertain if it’s good or bad, only that underlying it something tragic has occurred.
All three characters are written with a depth and soul that will grab you, make you feel their humanity, and gut you. It’s a testament to Chorn’s writing that she can do this even with Ianthe’s chapters which are always no more than a page or two and focus on her gaze and view of Cassandra.
There are trans characters in this story as well as same sex relationships. These characters and relationships are written beautifully and without stigma. I hesitate to say more because it will give things away, but suffice it to say these characters, their orientation and relationships are written with love at their core.
Chorn’s writing is atmospheric and magical. I don’t know how else to say it. It conveys emotion throughout; at one moment heartfelt love and devotion, and at another pain and anger. Nothing is wasted and everything moves you to the next scene, the next element of time, the next emotion, while building up the tension all the way to the end. You know things can’t turn out well but you have to keep turning the pages because you HAVE to know where the story is leading you; you HAVE to know what it is building to; you HAVE to know how the tragic tale will end.
World Building And Magic System
Of Honey And Wildfires is a Western themed fantasy. By that I mean the American West of the 19th century which also means it is fantasy, but not in the typical sense. So I guess it falls into the Weird West subgenre. In this world based on our own but not our own, a prospector Matthew Esco discovered a shine field on a vast tract of land out west. Shine is much like oil, but so very different. Shine has power; the power to heal, the power to purify, the power to so many things. It also has the power of addiction. It affects those who are close contact with it for prolonged periods of time causing them to have skin and hair color of every shade of the rainbow. It will make rotten food safe to eat again, and can heal wounds and stave off infections. It’s burned in lamps for light, and in fires for cooking. It’s even used as ammunition for weapons instead of bullets.
This shineland has been sealed off by powerful means so that nobody can cross the boundary without an antidote. Those inside the barrier when it was erected are stuck, and those outside can’t get in. Not without permission from the company that runs the shine business. It’s a monopoly on a product and a drug that everyone wants. People inside the barrier work to produce it (at dangerous cost) and those outside can’t get enough of it. Shine is the magic system, and the cause of the conflict in the narrative.
I know a lot of what I just said could go under the STORY section above but I mention it here because this is the worldbuilding for the most part. The world outside the barrier is mentioned here and there but really it’s what’s inside the barrier and the existence of shine that sets things in motion and drives the conflict. It’s a low fantasy story with a simple plot device used to great effect.
I’m always looking for themes in fantasy reads because too often fantasy is assumed not to have any. A few stood out to me with Of Honey And Wildfires, including family, child labor, and exploitation (of both natural resources and people). But for me what stood out the most were themes of pain, and loss, and mourning. In truth many if not all of the other themes can be wrapped up into these. From page 1 until the very end the reader is on a journey through an emotional wringer that explores the effects of bad decisions, ego, and evil alongside the tragedies of situations people are born into and have little control over.
Yet set against the despair the above themes can invoke is that of hope. Sprinkled throughout are instances of the characters casting their gaze toward something better and greater, whether it be the canopy of the moon and stars above and what they might represent, to the gaze of a lover for their beloved. Indeed the title Of Honey And Wildfires within the context of the book casts a view toward the hope of goodness and purity that emerges though the other side of suffering.
I know this review is long…it seems I can’t help but write long reviews. I’m glad you’ve stuck with me to this point. I’m not sure what else I can say in closing except that you should read this book. It is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, self-published or otherwise. Of Honey And Wildfires doesn’t just tell you a story or take you on a journey, it makes you feel. Books that give you the feels are the best kind in my opinion. With this read Sarah Chorn has landed on my automatic buy list, and friends let me tell you that’s a short list.
As of the writing of this review, Of Honey And Wildfires has also been listed as a semi-finalist in this year’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO).