Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn
"Of Honey and Wildfires" is a very first book from Sarah that I read. When I received an ARC, I had no expectations about the story other than an initial indication that it contains queer content, is a fantasy, and was coming out soon.
The synopsis reads: "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 realises 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."
The fantastical aspect of the book is shine - a valuable substance with a vast array of use: fuel, medicine, a taste enhancer, bullets. It's also very addictive in its unrefined form. A source of wealth, a cause of suffering, and a reason why people in the shine territory are so colourful; quite literally - exposure to it can change a hue of skin, hair, or eyes.
The world the story is set in resembles the Wild West - a wealth of the big city, small settlements, vast countryside, shine mines and wells, gunslingers. The touch of shine seamlessly blends with much loved western-style scenery (at least for someone who grew up watching Little House on the Prairie, Doctor Quinn, or even Snowy River). Is it a western-style book then? No, so if that's not a setting you usually enjoy, you'll be just fine. It's more of a canvas on which the story is painted.
Some authors meticulously create worlds to contain the story, along with magical systems, laws of physics, creatures, etc. "Of Honey and Wildfires" world is organic. It feels familiar and allows the reader to walk around and enjoy the views without clouding what's truly important in this story - characters.
Arlen and Cassandra are the main focus of the story. We follow their footsteps over several years and see them discover themselves, grow through their experiences, and explore: people, lies, relationships. The narrative is both from the first- and third-person perspective. It may sound like an odd choice, but it works incredibly well. It's allowing us to both be an observer of the events and give us insight into the deepest thoughts of protagonists. I will get to the importance of this in a moment.
The side characters feel very familiar - like people I knew for years: friends, family, neighbours, that man from the corner store. They emphasise the relatability across the story and - just like in real life - leave a different shape of footsteps in their wake.
Sarah's writing is smooth and natural. Changing the point of view of the story is done well. In conjunction with moving the timeline between the past the present day, it fueled mu curiosity - I wanted to know what's coming on the next few pages.
This book made me laugh and made me cry. Now, I'd like to go back to the importance of the insight into the deepest thoughts of protagonists. Their emotions and their perception of the events took hold in me as well. The difference between what we think and what we allow for the world to see is something that we all do and know exactly how it feels. As a result, my connection to the characters was much more profound - I felt their joy, their fear, anxiety, grief. I am not ashamed to admit that I'm a sentimental reader and shed a tear or two over many books. With this one - I cried ugly...
There's one more thing to mention about this book - a while ago the author promoted it on Twitter as an LGBTQ story, which made me a bit apprehensive. Not because I don't like LGBTQ stories. However, in a lot of them, the queerness is forced into the story as a method to quiet the critics and feels like a check-box exercise.
To my relief and joy, the characters guided the hand of the author well. The queer traits are an integral part of them and influence their actions, but they don't define them. The characters' individuality is cohesive, and they appear as if created effortlessly, though I suspect it's not the case.
I didn't know what to expect when I opened it first, but it took my heart by the storm.
The book is out now - and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
-----Of Honey and Wildfires On Goodreads