Book: The Honeys
Author: Ryan La Sala
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Mars has always been the lesser twin, the shadow to his sister Caroline’s radiance. But when Caroline dies under horrific circumstances, Mars is propelled to learn all he can about his once-inseparable sister, who’d grown tragically distant.
Mars’ gender fluidity means he’s often excluded from the traditions – and expectations – of his politically connected family, including attendance at the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy, where his sister poured so much of her time. But with his grief still fresh, he insists on attending in her place.
What Mars finds is a bucolic fairytale. Folksy charm and rigid gender roles combine with toxic preparatory rigor into a pristine, sun-drenched package. Mars seeks out his sister’s old friends: a group of girls dubbed the Honeys, named for the beehives they maintain behind their cabin. They are beautiful and terrifying – and Mars is certain they’re connected to Caroline’s death.
But the longer he stays in Aspen, the more the sweet mountain breezes give way to hints of decay. Mars’ memories begin to falter, bleached beneath the relentless summer sun. Something is hunting him in broad daylight, tying with his mind. If Mars can’t find it soon, it will eat him alive.”
Review: In the front of my review copy of The Honeys, La Sala has left a note for the reader. In it he writes: “As I write you this letter, another fear has found me. My first two books have shown up on a list concocted by a Texas lawmaker, to be investigated for their potentially discomforting themes around queerness, equity, and justice…This man fears me and my art. And I wish – like Mars – his reaction to fear was to learn. As an author, I do think of my works as edifying. I want The Honeys to shock and scare you, but after the buzzing fades, there is much to learn in these pages.”
As you may know from past reviews, I have read several YA books over the last few years and come away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I kept saying “YA can be better!” La Sala has proved me right with The Honeys. A quick-witted and sharp story, The Honeys is also a successful horror / suspense novel, and for that I find myself eternally grateful. I have spent so many hours reading essentially the same book over and over and over within the horror / suspense genre that I’ve grown bored and annoyed, at best. Finally. Finally! A YA novel, a horror / suspense novel at that, that breaks all the norms and blazes its own path forward. The Honeys unfolds slowly and you spend a majority of the book getting to know Mars and Aspen, learning what the camp looks like, discovering all the ways Mars has to fight for their very existence, and learning hints here and there about what may or may not have happened to his sister Caroline while attending the camp. I can appreciate a slow-to-unfold horror story, particularly when it begins it’s descent before there are 10 pages left. La Sala does not disappoint in this regard, as the book begins to gain momentum and work toward a conclusion with a good several chapters to go. In this way, the construction of the book is excellent, something I don’t find very often in both YA and horror novels.
I was a bit torn over whether to give The Honeys 4 or 5 stars when I got to the end – in full transparency, as I read I was convinced it was 5 out of 5 for the majority of the book. It was only when I got to the end that I started to question that rating. I came up against my own mind, thinking “but this is a queer novel” and wondering why there wasn’t some poignant sociologial meaning to draw everything together at the end. What I finally came to realize is that this is a young adult horror novel told from a queer narrator, not a queer novel with horror themes thrown in. While it does answer the brief and delve into Mars’ point of view and the way in which they interact with and are confronted by the world, it doesn’t to come to the end and force the reader to learn something profound – that happens slowly, as you get to know Mars through the bulk of the book. At the end of the day, this is a horror novel told from the point of view of a narrator with a different perspective than the majority of horror or suspense novels I’ve seen out there.
The writing is excellent, especially for a review copy. You have probably read by now, if you’ve been following my reviews for any length of time, that I often get review copies merely weeks before they’re published and still manage to find a plethora of grammatical errors and general mistakes throughout. In The Honeys I found two: one was a repeated word and one was a word left out. The Honeys doesn’t come out for mass reading until August of 2022, so La Sala is way ahead of the game as far as review copies go. I was so overwhelmingly surprised and pleased with the way this book was put together, the quality of the writing, and the overall storytelling, I finished the book and immediately looked up his other two books. YA isn’t a genre I tend to read on my own for fun, but I would gladly read another book from La Sala if his other two are anything like this one.
I can’t speak highly enough about The Honeys. It confronts themes I feel are important, and I think are becoming more important to young readers: the gender binary, traditional gender roles, and the danger that women and trans people feel in the presence of the “boys will be boys” mentality. I’ve read other queer review copies, and particularly within the YA genre it often feels as though the authors are trying too hard to fit these characters into their narrative. The Honeys didn’t feel forced, it didn’t feel over the top, or utterly absurd; it felt natural, it flowed in a way that felt organic, and it left me feeling as though the topic of gender fluidity wasn’t merely thrown in as a token to the audience. Perhaps it’s because La Sala is gender fluid whereas other YA books with queer characters that I’ve read to review have been written by authors who aren’t, or perhaps it speaks to La Sala’s talent as a writer, or maybe (most likely) it’s both. Either way, I came away both absolutely thrilled and disappointed that I’d read through it so quickly.
Advice: I don’t think you have to be a fan of YA books to read and enjoy The Honeys. I think if you enjoy suspenseful novels, beautiful imagery, and a good mystery then The Honeys is going to tick all the boxes for you. If you enjoy quality writing and a mystery that you can’t really solve on your own way ahead of the ending, you’ll love this book. If you’re interested in reading more gender fluid or queer character points of view, this book hits the mark. If you’re a fan of summer camp suspense, again, it checks all the boxes. I think this is a book for a wide and diverse range of audiences and I can’t recommend it enough.