What a great way to begin the year of reading! This book was wonderful. This is review #3 of 50 self published books I’m planning on reading this year.
This is the second book I’ve read by Sarah Chorn, and I must say that WTF this is lovely. She wields prose like a prison shiv, intent on gouging your heart out. She fights dirty, taking no prisoners as she writes, going straight for the reader’s soft emotional underbelly from page one. Her books have a mission: making the reader cry along with the characters. But she does it with such style and a flair for words that I can’t help but keep reading. She’s a master of catharsis and emotional revelation. If I were to compare her to anyone, it’d be Robin Hobb’s Fitz books; the books are sad, but the reader finds fulfillment in that sorrow, and a greater understanding of human nature.
‘Of Honey and Wildfires’ is a Wild West inspired fantasy story, clocking at at ~380pages.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Wild Western, with lawmen and settlers and
- Character Focus/Family Focus
- Robber Barons
- Adult, but anyone 16+ can read it
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I was not entirely sold on this book, until the end. In the end it came together MAGNIFICENTLY. The narrative wasn’t afraid of playing for keeps. I loved it!
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (5/5 Stars)
Note: I weigh books so most are 3 stars. I consider 2, 3 and 4 star books as ‘Average’ quality.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I have a business relationship with this book’s author. She edited my book.
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
I need to put spoilers here for the sake of explaining the concept. The book takes place in a frontier town where magic is drawn from the ground like oil or coal, called ‘shine’. The characters in this book are a part of an important extended family who both control the flow of shine in a Robber Baron-like fashion, as well as the terrorist rebels who seek to break up the cruel monopoly of the Baron.
Cassandra is the daughter of the head rebel. Cassandra lives a hard life, for the Shine Company constantly watches her, using her as bait to capture her father. This book focuses on her romance, her everyday life, and how she copes under the pressure of trying to keep her father alive.
Arlen is the son of the Robber Baron who controls the flow of shine. Arlen’s sent to Shine Country to establish control of the Company, but he’s promptly captured by Cassandra’s father, and held as a hostage. His goal is SPOILERS.
This concept is well executed upon. I had a few quibbles, which I’ll discuss below. However, overall I had a great time doing this. All this book’s little eccentricities paid off gloriously in the end. I kept expecting the story to be one thing, but the author kept pleasantly surprising me by giving me something I never expected.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
AND ALSO PLOT!
Cassandra is the daughter of the head rebel, Chris. Cassandra lives a hard life, for the Shine Company constantly watches her, using her as bait to capture her father. This book focuses on her romance, her everyday life, and how she copes under the pressure of trying to keep her father alive.
This girl suffered in this book. She lost her family, her friends, her lover. She was made the town pariah. I can’t remember a story where a protagonist suffered more than her. I felt really bad for her, and this is good! I’m a jaded reader, so it takes a lot for me to feel empathy for a character. The narrative successfully earned my empathy.
Arlen is the son of the Robber Baron Mathew Esco, who controls the flow of shine. Arlen’s sent to Shine Country to establish control of the Company, but he’s promptly captured by Cassandra’s father, and held as a hostage.
It’s revealed that Arlen is actually Cassandra’s brother, and that the head rebel Chris is the Robber Baron’s estranged Son-In-Law. This entire narrative one extended family squabble. Mathew hated that his daughter married Chris. After Cassie/Arlen’s mother died of fever, the Robber Baron swore revenge against Chris. Mathew stole Arlen at a young age, and raised Arlen to believe that Arlen is actually his son. Now Mathew hunts Chris, while their father Chris runs a terrorist revolt against the Baron’s mystical monopoly on shine.
The family was thereby torn in half. One side are the capitalist oppressors, who use a combination of magic and money to rule Shine Country. The other side are engaged in a decades-long guerilla war against the Baron’s Shine Company, fighting a desperate war for survival against an inhumanly cruel Baron who seeks to completely monopolize the production of magic.
And then there is the anti-twist at the end of the book concerning the Baron. (I call it an anti-twist and not a twist because the author clearly foreshadowed it.) And I loved it! It really went to show the disturbing nature of what wealth and power does to people.
One last thing before we close out this section. I think the book could have been improved if we got a few more scenes with the primary antagonist. He seemed like an interesting character. Matthew Esco, the Robber Baron, hung over this story like a storm cloud. He only appeared at the end. I wanted more of him.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
The book was slow paced, but purposely slow paced. The author made the CHARACTERS the focus of the narrative; of their everyday lives, of their banal miseries and everyday anxieties. Slow pacing worked very well to bring out the continuing tragedy of Cassandra and Arlen’s lives. And it made Ianthe’s sections light on fire and glow with divine despair. Truly, Ianthe’s sections were some of the best, most emotionally evocative literature I’ve ever read in the Fantasy genre.
The book’s pacing sped up towards the end. I think at about the 75% mark.
Examining this book’s structure is difficult because it’s chronologically non-linear. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best.
I think the book used the 3 act format.
- This section was before Arlen learned his true parentage, two weeks before the climax of the story. In this section, Arlen travels over the Boundry, and is captured by Chris.
- Cass’s ‘before’ section takes place from shortly after her mother’s death when she is 4, 14 years before the climax of the story. It starts with her being adopted by Annie, and ends with her being chased out of school for being different.
- This section is everything between Arlen learning his father is Chris, and ends when Chris is taken captive.
- This section begins with Cass recovering from her injury after being beaten up at school as a child, and Ianthe helps her recover by nursing her back to good health. It ends with the discovery of the red ribbon, and Ianthe’s injury and Cass helping nurse Ianthe.
- This section begins with Chris being taken captive. It ends when the story ends.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
As I said above, Sarah goes into her books seeking to rip your heart and make you bleed. She wants you to cry along with her characters.
The tone is melancholic. The characters live tragic lives, saddled with misery and disease and social isolation. But there is an underlying layer of hope for a better turn; Ianthe in particular shines out in this regard, never losing hope despite her consumption. The contrast between the darkness of circumstance and the brightness of hope serves the story well, enhancing reader investment in the story. This story was really well done.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
If I have one complaint, it’s that the worldbuilding was never gotten into. The narrative introduced the concept of ‘shine’ but never said exactly what it is, what it does. We see it used, and we can read context clues as to what it does. Based on context clues I think it’s magic fossil fuels, and people drink it like drugs. However, the story never describes what it is. Is it magic fossil fuels, or something else? Are there other entities like Matthew Esco, or is he unique?
This is the ‘Malazan’ method of explaining nothing and letting the reader picking up clues along the way. It’s a valid storytelling style, but not my preferred one. I wanted more of an explanation than we got. This is a nitpicky complaint, and it didn’t reduce my enjoyment of this book much at all. It’s still a 5 out of 5 star book.
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- Drill down and focus on the emotionality of characters. Really stew on the emotions. That’s what this book did very good. Use vivid language to inspire empathy and catharsis in the reader. Don’t be afraid to simmer in emotions for many chapters in a row.
Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.
What a great way to start the year of reading! If you like character-focused stories, and are open to trying a frontier/Wild West style story about a boom town, check this out. It’s great
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