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Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn

Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn
4.25
Book Name: Of Honey and Wildfires
Author: Sarah Chorn
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Western
Release Date: April 28, 2020

Sarah Chorn’s western-inspired fantasy Of Honey and Wildfires digs deep into the soul and taps a well of emotion in a layered tale that examines artifice, reality, and the costs of love.

At its core, the story revolves around a pair of fathers and the legacies they create for their children. Matthew Esco is a tycoon who has sacrificed his own blood to secure the future of his family. Chris Hobson is an outlaw and saboteur whose campaign against the Esco Corporation is rooted in a different sacrifice, one related to a secret he and Matthew share. Meanwhile, the MacGuffin that stirs the emotional pot is a magical oil called shine. Matthew owns sole rights to shine and will do anything to protect the fortune he makes from it, while Chris wants to destroy Matthew’s company and stop the exploitation of its workforce.

While the conflict between the two fathers forms the foundation of the story, we learn it from three young people, starting with Cassandra, Chris’s 18-year-old daughter. She gives us a broad, historical view through the transcript of a first-person interview. A narrower scope is provided by Matthew’s 20-year-old son, Arlen, in a third-person narration of the present-day action surrounding his first visit to the source of shine. Finally, the closest focus comes from Ianthe, Cassandra’s life-long friend and lover, who relays her observations and reflections in a first-person-present account from her deathbed.

A photographer as well as an author, Chorn brilliantly uses these different narrative lenses to explore the full scope of the story, from the minute details of Ianthe’s last breaths to the epic vistas, history, and mythology of Shine Territory. The approach strongly reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which uses a first-person narrative and an epistolary diary account to examine binary opposition from various cultural, sociological, and personal viewpoints.

Chorn’s use of metaphor is just as flawless. Shine is a magical version of petroleum, and Chorn uses it to expose the horrors of the unrestrained capitalism that marked the late 19th Century, when crude oil was discovered and first exploited in the American West. Esco Corporation has secured its ownership of the mineral by creating a magical boundary around the entirety of shine reserves—a barrier that kills anyone who passes through it unless they have access to a potion manufactured exclusively by, you guessed it, Esco Corporation.

Due to the ubiquity of the mineral inside the boundary, Shine Territory is brighter and more colorful than the rest of the world and passing through the boundary is like walking from Dorothy’s black and white Kansas into the technicolor Munchkinland. Even the people are brightly colored, taking on rainbow hues of purple, green, and orange from shine exposure. Shine has ushered a rapid modernization of this world, but the glossy beauty and slick technology mask corruption. The shine-laced food tastes delicious, but it’s rotten, just like Esco Corporation, which holds the entire population of Shine Territory in virtual slavery.

Only Esco security officers—lawmen—are permitted guns. Families fear finding shine reserves on their property because the lawmen may come and evict them, or worse. Just like the petrochemical companies of yesteryear, the company pays its workers a pittance but also sells them everything they need on credit, and most workers end up owing the company more than they can earn in a lifetime. In another historical parallel, the regime puts children to work in the mines and tells them it’s a favor to their families, who would otherwise starve.

These corporate excesses drive Chris Hobson to undertake his sabotage campaign, with tragic consequences. Chris’s soul is scored deep with guilt, and he’s seen as more outlaw than hero by the people he’s trying to help. Raised by Chris’s sister, Cassandra bears the stigma of being his daughter, but that doesn’t stop her from loving her father deeply. Indeed, all three point-of-view characters are deeply loving and compassionate souls, and they’re easy to root for as they’re swept into Chris and Matthew’s feud. This is the sort of book where hope is laced through every word, and you desperately want everyone to come out hale and whole, but it’s also a story where you know there will be blood before the end. (And yes, elements of the story reminded me keenly of the film There Will Be Blood, which was based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!.)

Chorn’s writing is known for its inclusivity and its emotive language, and Of Honey and Wildfires will not disappoint in this regard. Chorn approaches the teenage romance between best friends Cassandra and Ianthe gently and beautifully; the girls’ love for each other is deeply passionate though mostly chaste, given Ianthe’s fragile health. A transgender character is likewise presented frankly and without judgement, encouraging us to simply accept the person for who they are. Chorn’s language also digs deep into these characters’ emotional lives, which many fans will love. However, this was the one aspect of the storytelling that didn’t quite work, as I thought it was overdone. The frequency of extreme emotions undermined the impact of the climax, where the cyclone of Matthew and Chris’s mutual vendetta fully and finally rips through the protagonists’ lives. Yet weighed against the entirety of the work, this was a minor quibble.

In sum, Of Honey and Wildfires is an exquisitely crafted, engrossing, and beautifully written story full of soaring language that captures the spirit of the Old West, whether it be in a teenage girl’s recollections:

I will tell you this: Home is not a place. Home is an architecture of bones and a steadily thumping heart. Home is where dreams are born, and monsters are put to rest. It is where the soul can unfurl like the petals of a flower and find succor in the golden blush of each new day.

Or the ambition and dreams of a young man on the verge of possibility:

The great, yawning frontier always called to him, all those open skies and untamed mountains. It was a place where a man could live whatever life he chose. There was a certain unabashed freedom in the idea that always appealed to him.

If Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain) wrote fantasy, it might be like this.

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