Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review - Food for the Gods by Karen Dudley

Short review: After Pelops is resurrected from the stew his father cooked him in, he moves to Athens to become a celebrity chef and discovers that having the Gods think they owe you is something of a mixed blessing.

Brought back from a soup
Then off to Athens to cook
And solve a murder

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: When one thinks of mythic Greece, the first thing that comes to mind is not the travails of a once-cooked, previously dead, celebrity chef who must solve a murder mystery to save his business. One also doesn't think of melding tales involving the Greek gods and heroes with the somewhat crass commercial reality of Athenian history, ranging from the social climbing infighting between politicians and business men right down to dildos made from bread. But in Food for the Gods Karen Dudley manages to take this somewhat off-kilter set of premises and turn out not only a very entertaining story, but one that is also both hilariously funny and tragically sad at the same time.

The foundation of the story is the myth of Tantalus and Pelops. In the mythic story, Tantalus invited the gods to dinner and discovered that he didn't have enough food on hand to serve everyone, so he chopped up Pelops and placed him in the stew pot before serving him up to his guests. This didn't go over very well with the Olympians, and they banished Tantalus to Tartarus for eternal punishment and arranged to have Pelops resurrected, although he needed a replacement shoulder made from ivory as Demeter had absent-mindedly eaten some of the Pelops-stew. The mythic version of Pelops goes on to have other, somewhat unfortunate adventures, but in Dudley's hands, he takes what appears to be a side trek through Athens, where he becomes a celebrity chef, cooking for the dinner parties of the wealthy and powerful.

Although the myth of Tantalus and Pelops took place in a mythic period of Greece that can more or less best be described as "a long time before recorded Greek history", Dudley takes the story, and apparently all of the rest of Greek mythology, and inserts it into our real world history, contrasting the myths of the Greek gods and heroes with the reality of Athenian commercial culture. An off-hand remark about Pericles and the ongoing war with Sparta places the events of the book some time between 429 and 404 B.C., although I kind of suspect that the book (and any possible sequels) is set in "Xena-time", a meld of myth and history that grabs elements from wherever source needed to make a good story. But it is exactly this mixture of mythology, with its capricious and often childish gods, and pieces drawn from Athenian history, with its mixture of public piety, crass commercialism, and social and political status seeking, that makes Food for the Gods such an interesting novel.

The story starts with Pelops dealing with the consequences of having enthusiastic gods provide well-meaning but somewhat less than helpful assistance, driving the guests at a dinner party he is catering somewhat mad so that during their revelry they throw everything in the host's house out of the second floor window. Including Pelop's rented dishes. This is the high point of the book for Pelops, as the gods continue to meddle in his life and even though most of the time their meddling is either intended to be beneficent, or they are merely indifferent to Pelops' situation. And when the gods meddle in one's life, however well-intentioned they are, that always spells trouble. And Pelops winds up with plenty of trouble, most of which resolves in humorous ways.

The events of the novel take place during the Panathenaea, which is the high point of the Athenian social calendar, and the event during which Pelops hopes to cement his reputation as the top celebrity chef in the city. But he is beset by an angry crockery dealer, an arrogant and underhanded rival chef, a god who seems determined to get rid of all of his precious olive oil, and, most ominously, a mysterious client with rather specific and difficult demands and who seems to have the influence to get prominent Athenians to cancel their bookings with Pelops. As if that were not enough, Pelops lands right in the middle of a murder mystery that taints him by association and causes his embryonic catering business to crash to the ground, albeit with a little help from an insufferable rival spreading malicious rumors. More out of desperation than anything else, Pelops becomes an amateur sleuth, attempting to ferret out the guilty party in an effort to clear his own reputation and stop the nightly attacks of the Kindly Ones upon the populace of the city.

But Pelops' slightly humorous misfortunes, and the unfolding murder mystery are only part of what makes this book so good. The city of Athens of the 5th century B.C. serves not only as a backdrop for the story, but is almost a character itself. By highlighting the rapacious commercialism coupled with the inherently unjust nature of the city's laws and customs, Dudley gives her story an alien atmosphere that even overshadows the oddness of having gods, satyrs, and winged furies throughout the narrative. This element also allows Dudley to flex her classical knowledge and give the reader a view into the very different world of classical Athenian civilization, which, even though it was technically a democracy, it was one that not only tolerated but celebrated the practice of hiring prostitutes as entertainers at high-class dinner parties, the institutionalized discrimination against foreigners, and widespread slavery. By combining the tawdry reality of Athens, where purging the taint of a murder within one's house would be done by first feeding and then beating a homeless bystander until they fled the city limits, with the mythical version of Greek religion, in which a collection of winged demons would show up and randomly wreck havoc upon the populace of the city in retaliation for a murder while the gods stood by and neither knew nor cared to know who the actual guilty party was, Dudley manages to paint a picture of how very different the world was much more vividly than she could have if she had drawn upon only one or the other.

These multiple layers are what make Food for the Gods work so well as a novel. The character of the novel is best illustrated by the humorous advertisements that appear in between each chapter, promoting serious issues as how to correctly perform ritual purification and where to purchase devotional statues to glorify the gods, as well as more mundane concerns such as ribbonfish recipes and the availability of bread dildoes. But even when these poster or handbill style advertisements deal with the most serious of concerns, they are made humorous to our eyes by the juxtaposition of even the most sacred subjects with an aggressive form of marketing that seems alien to modern sensibilities. But this combination serves two purposes, allowing Dudley to keep her book feeling light and humorous even though it is about the business misfortunes of the protagonist and the murder of a young woman, while also bringing the historical reality of the era to the forefront of the story.

Food for the Gods is, quite simply, an excellent book in every possible way. Combining an interesting setting with an affable lead character who manages to be both favored by the gods and downtrodden at the same time while struggling to keep his catering business above water (literally having to defy Poseidon to do so) all centered on an intriguing murder mystery drawn partially from Greek mythology. If this seems like an eclectic stew of ingredients, rest assured that it is. But it is a stew that tastes delicious, just like Pelops' fig and cheese appetizers. Or, without using awkward metaphors, it is a delightful book that I predict would be enjoyed by almost anyone who picked it up.

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