Of Honey and Wildfires
by Sarah Chorn
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 30, 2020
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At this time, Sarah Chorn's second self-published novel, Of Honey and Wildfires, is only available for Kindle through amazon. [EDIT: Now also in paperback.] At first I thought it was going to be a distinct departure from the grimdark nature of her first book, Seraphina's Lament. Not that there wasn't any darkness, but I thought it might be like the proverbial dark cloud, with brightness and hope behind it. While there are a few bright spots, there is also tragedy, but unlike her first book, tragedy here is more mundane and relatable. It's part fantasy, part alternate world science fiction, set in a Wild West that never was, but with overtones of the one with which we are familiar; the hard-scrabble life of pioneers, robber-barons who control almost everything. The speculative element is "shine," a mysterious substance found as an oil, as well as a powder ground from rock. There is mention of the shine fields, although I'm not sure if that's referring to the fields where they drill for the oil, or if shine might also have been combined with a cultivated plant.
Matthew Esco is the owner of the Shine Company, and of all the land within the Boundary, which he created through an unexplained process. He also owns rights to a tonic which most need in order to pass through the Boundary. Yet there are a few immune to the effects of shine, and the hazards of the Boundary. One of them is Cassandra, daughter of outlaw Christopher Hobson, who later learns she is the granddaughter of Matthew Esco. Hobson is an outlaw wanted for terrorist activities against the Shine Company, and inadvertently of murder, since he had incorrect information concerning the work shifts at a shine mine he bombed. After a few years of self-imposed exile, Christopher re-enters the territory through the Boundary, the debilitating effects of which he feels since he does not have any of Esco's tonic. He brings Cassandra and leaves her with his sister Annie, then leaves again. The narrative switches back and forth between first-person accounts from Cassandra and her friend Ianthe, starting when Cassandra was five, then to later periods of their lives. There is also a third-person account focusing on Arlen Esco, sent to the Territory by his father to gain experience in their business. Christopher hijacks the inbound train, taking Arlen hostage. Arlen is surprised to discover he has a personal connection to Christopher, the realization of which will alter his perception of his life and his destiny.
I wished there was more of an explanation of shine, the history of its discovery and realization of its properties, how and why Cassandra (and Arlen) were immune to its effects. However, I was more than happy to forget about that and follow Cassandra's story, how she integrated herself into her aunt's family, how she was ostracized by other children because of her father, except for Ianthe, with whom she developed a close friendship (and more), all the while Ianthe is dying of consumption. There is confusion as to the sequence of events due to the shifting narratives, some of them overlapping, some backtracked to give another perspective on events already covered. As all the relationships are revealed, as family discovers family, there is hope of possible positive outcomes, but tragedy dominates. Any positive aspects are only hinted at in a future we may or may not read later. Sarah has said she is working on another story in this world, but it will feature other characters, maybe a different locale.
As in her previous book, the prose is beautifully lyrical in parts, with meaningful insights, although some of the metaphors and similes are a bit forced. Sarah knows about tragedy. She is a multiple times cancer survivor, a sufferer of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. She knows pain and heartache, but she also has a strength of will to work through that pain, to forge a more positive outlook for the future. She is Cassandra, and Ianthe, maybe even a bit of Arlen, just as she instilled a lot of herself into Seraphina. I draw inspiration from her struggle, how she has channeled that into her fiction, reshaping pain into strength and perseverence. As Cassandra says, "When I was a child, I did not know how much life could hurt. I have gained one truth over the years: the heart is a knife. Each beat of it cuts." This story cuts to the heart of what it means to suffer, to lose family, to lose hope, but also what it means to regain hope, to carry pain into a future you are determined to control.
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