Clearly no one told Kai Ashante Wilson, who won acclaim last year for the inventive novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, how to write epic fantasy. Here he is, publishing a sequel, and it’s another slim volume (where is your doorstopper page count?), starring a completely new cast, embracing a vivid range of themes—gender, race, sexuality—with nary a feast in sight. A Taste of Honey, is, in fact, a sequel only in that it takes place in the same universe as the first novella, sharing many of the same preoccupations while telling a very different story.
Aqib is a minor royal of the Olorumi who nonetheless has the rank and wealth to impress the commoners. Gifted when it comes to animals and steward of the royal menagerie, he’s out walking his favorite cheetah when he encounters a brash soldier from a neighboring land. Lucrio’s charm and roguish good looks quickly overcome Aqib’s shy reserve and delicacy.
There are parallels to Romeo and Juliet in the story of the burgeoning secretive affair between the two men, which, if revealed, would threaten not only Aqib’s own future, but his entire family’s, sabotaging a strategic marriage that would ensure his progeny will hold significantly higher places in the court. Aqib and Lucrio’s nations aren’t at war—in fact, the soldier is part of a peace envoy—but they hold very different ideas about the validity of romantic love between two men.
On the surface, this a very different story from Wilson’s previous novella. While sharing a mythology, the books occur in disparate locations and among entirely different social classes. Both do pick up some time after the collapse of a highly advanced society; remnants of scientific and mathematical knowledge remain, alongside individuals whose bloodlines allow them to harness the abilities of that lost past. To most, though, math and science are indistinguishable from magic.
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps focuses on not a gentle courtier, but a mercenary, Demane, second-in-command on a mission to cross a dangerous no-man’s land and face a terrifying beast. Like Aqib, however, Demane has skills that make him something of a savant, though he hates being called a sorcerer and resists using his abilities unless absolutely necessary, and even then, as far from prying eyes as possible. He also shares with Aqib a romance that’s hidden, if not precisely forbidden: a sexual relationship with the captain of the mercenary troop, one the other men would not understand.
In both books, Wilson’s language stands out, and sets his work apart in the crowded field of fantasy. In Wildeeps, especially, he’s created convincingly distinct dialogue for the hard-living mercenary troops that blends a traditional fantasy tone with hip-hop rhythms and jargon.
It might sound weird, but it’s no less believable than any secondary world dialect (consider how often they’re based on British patterns), and serves an important purpose: it allows black characters to inhabit a fantasy world in a meaningful way, beyond the mere suggestion of dark skin. This is a fantasy world that springs authentically from Wilson’s African-American experience. There’s even a bit of code-switching evident in Demane’s subtle changes in speech patterns and slang as he moves between his lover and the unpolished mercenaries.
A Taste of Honey does something equally interesting, making a hero of a gentle, effete zookeeper. It’s noteworthy when an LGBT character shows up in a fantasy, and the burly wizard Demane is one mode, but building a story in a sword-and-sorcery world around a character like Aqib is another thing entirely. Rather than slotting a gay character into a traditional role, Wilson provides a hero who’s a bit more reactive, but faces recognizable challenges in revealing his sexuality, amid a story that manages to squeeze in a brutal fight scene and a twist ending that I absolutely did not see coming.
The books’ brisk pacing is wonderful. The best fantasy constructs deep, detailed settings, but there is always a risk of getting bogged down in the minutiae of building a world, losing sight of the characters making their way through it. Perhaps because of the trim page count, Wilson is able to create the feel of a lived-in environment, without the need for excess exposition.
On a deeper level, both novellas are preoccupied with crossroads—moments in which a single decision changes the course of a life. In Sorcerer, Demane is called upon to choose between his humanity and his magical nature. Even if our world tends to involve fewer swords and much less sorcery, we’ve all faced choices that will determine the course of our futures. It works as a metaphor in all kinds of ways, but takes on particular resonance in stories with gay leads. Demane is hiding the extent of his power first, and the extent of his relationship with the Captain second; Aqib’s moment of decision is entirely about the choice to run away with Lucrio.
Wilson is hardly the first writer to introduce queer people and people of color into a work of fantasy, but he’s among the most brilliantly brazen. Demane and Aqib aren’t traditional heroes in shades of gay; they feel as though they’ve sprung from an entirely different tradition (thanks in no small part to the inventive use of language). That’s not to say there aren’t beloved tropes on fine display: Wildeeps has bloody battles and sorcerers; Honey fits in some action alongside a romance with supernatural undertones. Each novella stands alone, but together explore very different views on a unique world. If Kai Ashante Wilson is the future of fantasy, I can’t wait to read what’s next.