Book Review of “Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome” by Crystal King.
Apicius was a rich Roman merchant and famous gourmand who reached the height of his fame during the first century of the Common Era. His dream was to become gastronomic advisor to the Cesar. After his previous cook died of mysterious circumstances, he heard about the slave Thrasius that had just come on the market. Since Thrasius was a cook for one of his rival gourmands, he knew he must make this purchase. King tells this story through the eyes of Thrasius, imagining a relationship that will bring Apicius fame and lead to a collaboration in writing the world’s first cookbook, all while navigating the ever changing conspiratorial waters of Roman politics.
What drew me to this book was the idea of the combination of culinary fiction with ancient roman historical fiction. Regarding the latter, many years ago, I read Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” books, which began my fascination with this place and period in history. What amazed me about McCullough’s books was the sheer volume of political underhanded dealings and intrigues that surrounded this early model of governance, elements of which still live today in modern democracies. Any historical fiction that takes place during these times must include a good measure of these complexities to be worth its salt. King decided to do this on a micro level by focusing on one family and the members of its household, who happen to have actually been at the eyes of some real major political storms.
As for my love of culinary fiction, of course, Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an early favorite, but I think my real fascination with this tiny genre started with the obscure 1976 book Someone’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe by Nan and Ivan Lyons. (Trust me; if you can get your hands on a copy, it is a “must-read” for lovers of both culinary fiction and murder mysteries.) That led me to other authors such as Joanne Harris among others, and now it always piques my interest when I see food entwined with a fictional plot. With both of these two things in place, King’s debut novel was one I absolutely had to read, and I’m pleased to say that she didn’t let me down!
My regular readers will recall that I’ve always said there’s a fine line between just enough and too much information in historical fiction – particularly when it comes to times where there’s an abundance of information. As noted above, ancient Rome is certainly one of those instances. King does a commendable job of keeping the facts from overwhelming the fiction here, although I also felt that she could have cut down on some of the crisis that Thrasius and the Apicius family had to overcome. This can lead to a type of roller-coaster effect, which can be a touch tiresome; too many climaxes tend to lessen the impact of them as a whole. However, knowing what King was dealing with here made me feel that this was only a minor problem with this novel. On the other hand, what worked surprisingly well here was King’s artful use of smatterings of Latin into the text, without disturbing the flow of the narrative. Mind you, there were some instances where King used phrases that felt a touch too modern for the period (for example, would someone from the 1st century use “okay?”).
When it comes to the food parts of this book, King delightfully describes the meals and different types of banquets, including both their distinctive gourmet elements as well as the ostentatious methods of these events, down to the types of napkins they used. Although I already knew that many of the foodstuffs adored by Romans of the time are either unfamiliar or disused today, some of the ingredients could bring about both shock and awe for even the bravest of eaters (like dormouse, for instance). This clearly shows King’s massive research here, the crumbs of which (pun intended) she artfully merges into the action, making sure their flavors don’t overshadow the plot or the characters themselves. Therefore, regarding the essential elements of the culinary sphere, again King did a laudable job of balancing a high level of accuracy of facts into her fictional imaginings.
However, at its basis, this story belongs to Thrasius, which I might call a multi-faceted love story. We have Thrasius’ love of food, cooking, and devising new recipes. We also witness his falling in love with a fellow slave. Furthermore, we see how Thrasius comes to love his master and the members of his family. Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth” and so as King developed Thrasius’ tale with many obstacles. As a character, Thrasius is is one readers can easily identify with, and will find themselves rooting for him with every barrier in his way, making for a story that will grip us from the start. Together with this, King also didn’t hold back with developing the cast of characters surrounding Thrasius, making them no less vibrant and creating a believable and well rounded ensemble. Overall, I felt this novel was simply delectable. If this, King’s debut work, is an appetizer of King’s talent, we should all hungrily await the courses she has on her forthcoming menus. I think this book deserves an appealing four stars (literary, not Michelin) out of five.
“Feast of Sorrow” by Crystal King, published by Touchstone, released April 25, 2017 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, eBooks, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.