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Review of Honey and Spice by

Honey and Spice

by Bolu Babalola

Most of my IRL friends don’t read the same genres as me. There’s overlap but not that much. I don’t mind this, though, because it means that when they recommend a book to me and say, “I think you will really like this,” as my bestie Rebecca did when she gave me Honey and Spice for my birthday last year, I receive an incredible gift. I love when people push me to read outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I don’t enjoy it. Other times, like with this first novel from Bolu Babalola, I have the pleasure of a breathtaking ride that has left me with a better understanding of romance than ever before.

Kikiola Banjo, or Kiki, attends Whitewell College in southern England, where she hosts Brown Sugar, a campus radio show about relationships and situationships. Respected yet somewhat inaccessible, Kiki finds herself the centre of more attention and scrutiny than she desires when she ends up kissing Malakai Korede, whom she had recently met and then excoriated on her show (albeit not by name). Seeking to use this attention to her benefit for a summer internship application, Kiki persuades Malakai to enter into a fake relationship with her.

You know how it goes from there. Or do you? One of the best things about Honey and Spice is how Babalola expertly wields foreshadowing that consistently satisfies yet also subverts expectations.

I don’t often read romance, but when I do, I want it to be new adult. I want it to be set in a college in the UK. I want it to be diverse, queernorm, and more. Honey and Spice has all that (the central romance is not itself queer, to be clear, but there are numerous queer characters having queer romances all around, and it’s lovely).

Kiki and Malakai are both, like Babalola herself, British-born of Nigerian descent, and the story is steeped with references to Nigerian cuisine and dress, lots of unapologetically unitalicized Yoruba, and more. Did I, a white woman from Canada, know what the hell was going on every moment of this story? No, and that is wonderful. Just go with it. Because that part of the book isn’t for me (let’s face it, a whole heck of a lot of this book isn’t for me), and that’s fine. I can only imagine other readers are going to finally see themselves represented in this book, and I am here for that joy. Maybe one of the best yet most understated moments of the book happens when Kiki watches Malakai’s short film, which is about the Black barbershop he practically grew up in as a kid, and how that connects to his ideas of masculinity as a young Black man. It’s raw and powerful and it’s just this moment that underpins, uplifts the beauty of Malakai’s character overall.

Alas, such Black joy exists against a backdrop of discrimination. Rather than erase that in favour of fluff, Babalola deftly negotiates the tension between romance/sexytimes and commentary on anti-Black racism in UK society, and it is so good. From the internecine power struggle within “Blackwell” to the wider questions of how to just exist as a minority on campus, Honey and Spice doesn’t shy away from the hard moments. And I want my romance to have some teeth to it. Look, I understand entirely the desire for fluffy beach reads and am in no way dismissing their value. But for me, as an aromantic gal, a little social commentary in my romance is very fulfilling.

On that note, let’s get to the part of the review you’re all waiting for. Look, as an aromantic person, romance as a genre is a tough sell for me. Knowing this, Rebecca tried to sell me on Honey and Spice by noting that “it also involves how complicated family can be, female friendships, motivation, creativity, and the importance of vulnerability”—all of which is true, some of which I’ll discuss in a bit. Yet this is also a romance novel, so how did I feel about it?

This is one of the best romance novels I have ever read, with some of the best sex/makeout scenes I have ever read. I don’t say that lightly.

Bolu Babalola has actually maybe helped me better understand why some of y’all are so obsessed with kissing (ew).

I want to give you a little taste of this spice (or is this the honey?):

He was good. And not just a One Size Fits All good, but good enough to match me. He was feeling me out, taking the lead gently when it was clear I was ceding power. I could taste that he was having fun with it, deepening the kiss before lightening up, making the increasingly frantic heat gathering inside my stomach rise and then simmer. I could feel a new brand of adrenaline kick up inside of me. He was challenging me. This was a duel. Fine.

Wowwwwwww. Is that what kissing is like for some of you? I get it. I still don’t want to do it, but I get it now.

Babalola has put such thought into how she describes her characters, their actions, and yes, their making out. It’s my favourite approach to eroticism: descriptive yet not purple prose, full of movement and metaphor. Her mastery of language extends beyond those moments, however, encompassing the book as a whole. Honey and Spice is beautifully written, beautifully told.

That beauty is apparent in the characterization, which is so dense on the page. Kiki and Malakai are incredibly round, three-dimensional main characters. They are both likeable and sympathetic, yet at the same time, they mess up. Kiki has baggage, and it makes her refuse to see what’s right in front of her. (Thankfully, her bestie, Aminah, calls her on that bullshit.) Malakai is so kind and gentle and the opposite of the toxic dude Kiki initially believes him to be, yet he is also stubborn and proud. Even the side characters, like Aminah, get some development, and I love it.

I love the friendship between Kiki and Aminah, as Rebecca predicted for me. The subplot around Kiki and her former best friend from high school intrigued me. This part of the story gets dangled in front of us a few times, only to be resolved in a weirdly contrived, coincidental way, and then it just … never really comes up again? Like, I love this whole angle to Kiki’s backstory and motivation. However, this subplot is perhaps the only area of the book that I would call less than perfectly polished.

Everything else? Amazing. Seriously. If you love romance, then walk, don’t run, to read Honey and Spice. If, like me, it’s not your usual genre, but you still enjoy new adult or intense novels about coming-of-age, dealing with relationships, etc., then you should still give this a try. It’s probably cliché to say this nowadays, but this deserves to be a movie. Babalola does not miss.


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