BookBrowse Reviews Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

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Feast of Sorrow

A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Crystal King

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King X
Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2018, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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Set amongst the scandal, wealth, and upstairs-downstairs politics of a Roman family, Crystal King's seminal debut features the man who inspired the world's oldest cookbook and the ambition that led to his destruction.

Feast of Sorrow, by Crystal King, is the fictional story of Thrasius, a Roman slave in the first century AD. The real-life famous gourmand Apicius buys Thrasius to be his household cook, manage his kitchens and help him obtain the goal of being appointed gastronomic advisor to the reigning Caesar. As their feasts become increasingly famous for their extravagance and incredible delicacies, they write the world's first cookbook together (see Beyond the Book) against the backdrop of an era filled with both menace and promise.

As someone who has remained fascinated by historical fiction dealing with ancient Rome since Colleen McCullough wrote her Masters of Rome books, and equally in love with culinary fiction, this book – which combines the two – sounded perfect for me. Of course, this particular era is known for its excessive amount of drama (lies, bribes, murder, strategic marriage, you name it!), and McCullough succeeded in writing six thick volumes, so you can imagine just how much fodder is here. Thankfully, King concentrates her story on only one family, and tells it through Thrasius' point of view. But because Apicius was a real person, and King includes many actual (and well-known) personalities of the time, the amount of drama included here is also quite substantial, and comes precariously close to being overwhelming. Luckily it never actually crosses that fine line.

The descriptions of the various types of dinner parties in Feast of Sorrow are fascinating, both in terms of their unique contents and their lavish showmanship. King further enhances this culinary focus by introducing each section of the story with one of the recipes from Apicius' cookbook. Mind you, some of the ingredients will shock even the most adventurous of epicures, such as peacock's tongue, doormouse and the genitalia of a few exotic animals. She also includes ingredients that were rare at the time, but don't exist anymore, such as silphium. King's extensive research here is evident as she artfully weaves these tidbits into the storyline, making sure that they don't overpower the characters or the plot, which creates the perfect balance of fact and fiction.

The foundation of Feast of Sorrow is a multi-faceted love story – Thrasius' love for cooking, food and inventing new recipes; his love for a woman (one of Apicius' slaves); and his love for his master and family. As Shakespeare said, "the course of true love never did run smooth" and King builds Thrasius' tale with many obstacles. More importantly, Thrasius is a character readers will easily sympathize with and root for with every new hurdle he encounters, which makes for a gripping story. The cast of characters that surround Thrasius are vivid and well developed too, creating a convincing all-round ensemble.

This isn't to say that I didn't find any faults with the novel. It seems to me that there are too many complications for Thrasius and Apicius' family – they are constantly going from crisis to crisis, which creates a few too many climaxes for my taste. Mind you, this is certainly in keeping with the history of the time, but perhaps King could have cut a few of these out to tighten up the narrative. They hold back the progress of the story somewhat, making the pace drag in a few places. In addition, while I have no problem with the amount of Latin words incorporated into the text (which add to the atmosphere of the story, without distracting from it), a few phrases feel a touch too modern. For example, it doesn't feel quite right when one character asks another if they are "okay." However, these are small defects and, overall, I truly enjoyed this delicious novel. If this debut work is a taste of what King can serve up, I am hungrily looking forward to the feasts she'll cook up next.

Reviewed by Davida Chazan

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2017, and has been updated for the May 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The World's First Cookbook

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