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Book Review: Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn

Title: Of Honey and Wildfires

Author: Sarah Chorn

Publisher: Sarah Chorn

Publication Date: April 28, 2020

Genres: Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, Female-authored

The best stories are those you experience, the ones that get inside your head and your heart, but it’s storytelling of a whole other level when you know there is heartbreak and sorrow ahead, and yet you feel compelled to see it through, not just to know the ending, but to experience it in all its heartrending agony.

Coming into Of Honey and Wildfires, I already knew Sarah Chorn was an exceptional writer and editor (check out my review of Seraphina’s Lament), but this . . . this is that whole other level and then some.

Before I get into the characters and the emotions, I want to talk a bit about the world building here. In many ways, this is an old fashioned Western, complete with horses, railroads, mining towns, outlaws, and a new frontier, but there’s an integral element of magic flowing throughout. It’s not oil or gold or anything so commonplace that settlers are mining, but something called Shine – a sort of liquid rainbow that flows from beneath the Earth, a magic substance that provides light and heat, that preserves food and cleans water, that strengthens and heals in small amounts . . . and which also poisons, alters, and destroys. The lucky settlers who live on Shine are blessed with gem-like skin tones and hair colors, while the unlucky ones are plagued by an all-consuming addiction that belies that outer beauty.

Set against that backdrop we have a story of family, one that’s as much about sorrow and suffering as love and loyalty. Cassandra (shunned for being untouched by Shine and loathed as the daughter of an outlaw), Ianthe (dying of both consumption and an addiction to the Shine that treats it), and Arlen (ostracized for being an outsider and despised as the son of the Shine Company) are the three POV characters, with a story that slowly weaves together the distant past, recent past, and immediate present, even as it exposes ties of family and explores bonds of love.

As the outsider, having traveled to Shine Territory for the first time, it is Arlen who occupies the most space inside our heads. It is through his experiences that we come to understand the corporate exploitation behind frontier opportunity and appreciate the pain and suffering behind easy luxury. He’s a bit cold, a bit hard to get to know, but definitely a sympathetic character who makes us care about what is happening in Shine Territory, and who gives us hope that maybe things can change. Without betraying a secret, Arlen is also a character with whom I can identify, with whom I share a certain sense of self, and I thought that aspect was handled brilliantly.

It is Cassandra and Ianthe who get deep inside our hearts, though, who demand that we experience their stories with them. I won’t lie to you – there is more grief and sorrow and pain wrapped up in them than any reader should be asked to witness, but there is also a deep, pure, innocent love. Theirs is a love of tender hand-holding, soft words, and quiet company, yet it’s far more powerful and poignant than wild kisses and passionate embraces. The sorrow of their impending parting is more than enough to leave eyes watering, but the other pains that they’re burdened with, the other sorrows they share, I challenge any reader to get through this with dry eyes.

Had this been any other book by any other author, I might have chafed a bit against the pacing, which sees so much plot crammed into the last 50 pages, but for once I wasn’t thinking about problems, challenges, quests, or climaxes. I was wholly consumed by the characters and the relationships, and knowing (or suspecting) what was to come, I didn’t begrudge them a moment of their time together. Similarly, while I might have otherwise bemoaned how much happens off the page, especially in those final pages, it’s not those plot elements that drive the story but the emotional reactions they prompt.

Finally, it must be said that Of Honey and Wildfires is a beautifully told tale, one with word choices and phrasings that made me pause on a regular basis to simply admire the artistry of the narrative. It’s a book that is beautiful and painful at the same time, something so overwhelming and all-consuming that, as a reader, I find myself feeling guilty for the fact that it had to come to an end. You’ve never read anything quite like this before.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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