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  • Writer's pictureE L Crocker

Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn: A Review

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Magic oil and magic prose combine in this stunning indie fantasy

Note: This review has also been posted on Goodreads and Amazon. If you read a book, always leave reviews there! It really helps the authors.

Fantasy novels don’t always have to be written well, in the literary sense. They don’t have to be beautifully poetic. They don’t have to be lyrical. Many of the fantasy novels I love are written serviceably, acceptably (and sometimes even fairly dodgily) but with an incredible plot and great characters and an amazing world. You don’t have to stun readers with the poetry of your imagery or the power of your emotive language.

But if you do? You get something like Of Honey and Wildfires, an indie fantasy by Sarah Chorn. And, trust me, it is something to behold.

That is my hand, if you're wondering.

I’ll come back to this point on writing later. The setting first. This is a Wild West fantasy; the setting is the Shine Territory, a province in an Old West world where a magical substance called Shine is mined. Shine takes the place of oil in this story, except unlike oil it has a dizzyingly wide variety of uses. It heals wounds. It lights rooms. It flavours food. It gives people the power to mentally convey messages (while making them dangerously addicted at the same time, sort of like Professor X addicted to opium). It is used as ammunition in guns. It does everything, pretty much.

Shine is controlled by The Company, headed by the ruthless Matthew Esco. There’s even a Shine boundary stopping people crossing into the Territory. The only way to cross is to be given an elixir, and of course the Company chooses who gets it, a brilliant idea which shows how its residents are literally trapped in their lives. The people in Shine Territory are treated badly by the Company: poor, not in control of the Shine themselves despite its plenitude and despite the fact that, in an astonishing visual touch, all those who grow up in the Territory are literally marked by it – their skin tones and hair a variety of gem colours: violet, emerald, fiery orange, midnight blue.

Into this world come two main characters: Cassandra, the son of an outlaw sent to live with a simple family in Shine Territory, whose story is told in flashbacks from a very young age to her present teenage self, and who has a mysterious shine-related secret of her own. Some might get discombobulated by all the time-hopping of her arc; I followed it absolutely fine. Then there is Arlen Esco, the son of Matthew, who is in town to do his father’s corporate bidding but has some discoveries about his true identity to make and, you guessed it, some shine-related secrets of his own. Their destinies will combine, and things will go down.

Now the first thing to say is that despite the endless possibilities of this miracle Shine substance, Chorn is not that interested in the finer worldbuilding of it, or the grittier details of exactly how it works. That’s not to say that there aren’t discussions of the dark side of it: it is addictive, and it ruins lives as well as saves them. And there are some Shine-based revelations that form the heart of the finale. But if you’re wanting an elaborate discussion of the magic system, this is not the book for you.

Instead, Chorn is more interested in her characters here; their emotional arc and their hopes and dreams. In many ways, Shine functions simply to create the context for a very John Steinbeck approach: Chorn follows a simple, downtrodden family, their hopes and dreams, and the way the cruel rules of the system serve to crush them. I felt almost as strongly for some of the characters in this book as I did as those in Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath, suggesting that Chorn has, like the Company men in her book, mined something golden, in her case one of the great themes of American literature, shone through a fantasy lens. Like Steinbeck, there is great dignity and courage in her characters despite their helplessness in the face of greed and corruption and disease and fate.

But where this book really impresses, as I alluded to at the start, is in the language, and the poetry of it, and the way it expresses the character’s emotional journey, and the pain of love and grief. In this sense, I cannot stress enough how unusual a fantasy this is. So unusual, that I can see some people being nonplussed by it. Chorn writes a gripping scene of action and tension as competently as the next fantasy writer, but she constantly stops, halts the action, and goes on some extended riff as she tries to describe the character’s emotions in remarkably vivid ways, like she’s rehearsing for a poetry collection. Almost every page contains a couple of lines that you could, and perhaps should, frame on your wall and pass off as poetry next time you’re feeling pretentious and want to impress a houseguest (just me?).

This is definitely not what I meant when I said you could frame some of the lines on your wall.

Chorn’s writing is intense, and expressionistic; metaphors of storms and glass and liquid and heart. It reminds me of the Romantic poets. When it comes to love, she writes like Byron, when it comes to grief, she writes like Dickinson, and for both, perhaps, Sylvia Plath. This is poetry writ large in a fantasy, and it is unusual and it is remarkable. Really remarkable.

The result of all this intensity and verse and passionate figurative language and Romanticism is that when the characters’ arcs come to an emotional head – and boy does this get emotional – it feels earned, and it feels real, and it overwhelms you. I felt exhausted by the end – in the best possible way.

It’s not often you read a genre book that reads so differently to most of the others. Some will balk at this literary, poetic approach. Me? I fell more than a little in love with it, and I hope that you do too.

This book gets 5 out of 5 Crockers

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