What a sumptuous delight of a novel that greatly satisfied both the craftsman and the girl-in-search-of-the-fantastic living inside me! Joanne M Harris has turned her considerable talents to a mosaic novel crafted as a compendium of fairy tales that are both wildly original yet hearken back to the tales we already know, usually giving the reader a deft twist if not outright sting in the tail. And that’s to be expected from a book featuring bees, which can provide sweetness or pain, as the stories here do too.
It’s kinda hard to explain what the book is about beyond format. The tales are generally centered on the Lacewing King, the aloof, stubborn and often cruel ruler of the Silken Folk, as the fairies of this universe are called. Book 1 sets out his birth and misadventures, including his battle with his great enemy Harlequin. Book 2 puts the Lacewing King on a collision course with the modern world, where he must be rescued by the Barefoot Princess who loves him and who will cheat Death himself in search of reunion. It’s a remarkably clever construct, as if all the fairy tales in the world were really about one cast of characters whose paths intersect and diverge as decades pass and people both meet and move on. Ms Harris does a terrific job of building a golden scaffolding from which to hang her stories, like a honeycomb connecting worlds with worlds, as she herself says in the proceedings.
The only part of the stories that I didn’t understand was who the Hallowe’en King was looking for when he originally went into the domain of Death. Allegedly, he was looking for his lost love, but afaik she was alive and hale the whole time? Someone please feel free to explain this part to me.
Charles Vess’ wonderful line drawings bring the stories to lush, romantic life, as is his specialty. My favorite of the many gorgeous illustrations in this book is probably the one of the Moth Queen and the girl who loved to dance, tho the tale of the out-of-place mermaid comes in a very close second. Mr Vess truly is our modern-day Arthur Rackham, and a literary treasure.
But most of all, I loved how the stories here in Honeycomb managed to capture the whimsy and darkness both of traditional fairy tales while infusing a very modern sensibility to it all. Diverse representation is the norm, with the only misstep I felt — and this is truly minor in the grander scheme of things — being a dig at beautiful women who want to save wolves from extinction. Sure, no one likes being eaten by wolves, and it’s silly to think that wolves are harmless, but there’s definitely a case to be made for keeping ecosystems intact, and that includes not hunting apex predators to extinction. Otherwise, these fairy tales were deeply satisfying both to my intellect and to my psyche, feeling less created by Ms Harris than conveyed, in the manner of all true and epic tales.
Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris & Charles Vess was published May 25 2021 by Gallery/Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers, including