Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

Chin, Alan, “The Plain of Bitter Honey”, Bold Strokes Books, 2013.

Reviewed by Amos Lassen

Aaron and Hayden Swann are twin brothers who are involved in a fight against the government that has been taken over by right wing religious fundamentalists. Aaron fights with ammunition; Hayden fights with intellect and words. Suddenly everything changes when they are caught in a sting and they manage to get to the badlands, to a safe haven—The Plain of Bitter Honey where the resistance has set up camp. What they do not know is that the government agents that have been following them know where they are.
While this certainly sounds like science-fiction, we realize that everything that happens in this novel could very well happen here. Set in 2055, this is not the America that we know—this is America, a Christian nation and for non-Christians, life is not good. They are put into ghettoes simply because they disagree with government policy or just because they are different. Aaron and Hayden are very different people. Hayden is preoccupied with the world of literature and Aaron is actively fighting the ruling regime. He is a gay man that has to hide his sexuality and his love for Julian, his boyfriend because homosexuality is against the will of the government.
I have long been a fan of Alan Chin because of the way he develops his plots and his wonderful writing. While I was ready this, I was fully aware of how Chin had thought this out before committing it to print. This is a book that has several layers depending upon the way the reader sees the story. I personally see it as a warning to not let ourselves become too content with the new freedoms we have because it does not take much to lose them just as the Jews of Germany did. We are all aware of what happened there. I realize Chin has done his research well so that he can give us this story and the comparisons to Nazi Germany are important especially since the LGBT community in America is standing at the threshold of having the greatest freedoms it has ever known. Chin presents us with a great deal to think about here and because of that this is not a book that be breezed through. It is, as if, he wants us to stop and think as we read and we do not often get novels that are written that way. 
We see early on that Aaron and Hayden live in a world of hypocrisy. Aaron knows that if he wants to have a good life he has to take action and when he does both his and his brother’s lives are put into dangerous situations. He has an inner struggle to fight as well and it is his only when Hayden’s life is put into danger that he realizes that he must act. It took a while for Aaron to understand that, as they journey to the Plain of Bitter Honey, in order to win, counter-violence may not be the best idea and he begins to see his own potential.
What I find to be so fascinating here is the way Chin combines philosophy and politics with an emotional story that touches the reader deeply. It is interesting that we read a story that makes us think as we find ourselves becoming emotionally involved with the characters. We do not often get the opportunity to think while we read m/m romances and we really do not get many m/m romances with little romance. Here the story is the most important thing and everything else is secondary to it.
You may ask why read a story that has little romance and heavy philosophical currents? This is one of the layers I wrote of earlier. Each of us is free to read the story in the way that we want. Personally I love being challenged by what I read yet I can see how others may read this differently. Chin gives us a very real tale and he does so with great style. I did something I never do before writing a review—I read a couple of other reviews and one of them was quite bothersome to me in that the things that I loved here are the same things the other reviewer did not like. Whereas he found the ideas presented to be too philosophical and over the top, I found them just right. He also commented that the characters were “poorly formed” and he found it difficult to understand just who they were. Again I disagree and I think Chin formed his characters to carry the plot and to allow us to use our own thoughts as we met them. But then that is the beauty of literature and disagreeing is why we have the right to choose. Chin has never let me down and I would much rather have something to think about than reading about two guys rutting away in sexual abandon.

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