*I received a free ARC of this book with thanks to the author, Neem Tree Press and Anne Cater of Random Things Blog Tours. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: 1798 Bucharest: A magical, dark adventure
A year full of intrigue and political machinations: a slave-chef lives in Bucharest, sought after by everyone. His cooking is sublime, satisfying even the sophisticated tastes of the Prince, who steals him from his rightful owner and installs him in the Palace. However, no one knows that the chef has in his possession a witch’s recipe book: the Book of Perilous Dishes. The recipes in this magical book can bring about damaging sincerity, forgetfulness, the gift of prediction, or hysterical laughter. And the rightful owner of this book is fourteen-year-old Pâtca, initiated in the occult arts. Pâtca comes to Bucharest, to her uncle, Cuviosu Zăval, to recover this book, but she finds him murdered and the Book of Perilous Dishes has disappeared without trace. All that Zăval has left her is a strange map she must decipher. Travelling from Romania to France and on to Germany to do so, Pâtca’s family’s true past and powers are revealed, as is her connection to Silica the cook…
Pǎtca, or Cat o’Friday is lost from the very start of the book, yet she is lost with such determination and spirit that she kept fooling me (and, I suspect, herself) that she knew what she was doing all along.
Tasked with mysterious instructions from her grandmother and her ‘little uncle’, Cuviosu Zăval, Pǎtca arrives in Bucharest to find that nothing is as she expected or remembered and that no one can be entirely trusted. So she, and the reader, marches and fumbles her way through a world of half-understood political intrigue, half-heard gossip and half-believed charms, tricks and spells.
Reading the story felt almost like looking at a Magic Eye picture: one minute the story is all magical realism, and you can feel the power of the spells and recipes, and the strength of Sator – you have as much faith in the curses and protections as the most fervent Satorite. Then the perspective shifts ever so slightly, and you see an imaginative young girl, caught up in an adult world just slightly out of her understanding, and fuelled by the fairytales fed to her by her elderly relatives, interpreting the real world through the lens of her childish fantasies. Then another tiny tug of the narrative, and the mystical picture re-emerges. It was so clever and beguiling, and put the reader in the exact same position as the main character!
The worldbuilding and historical cultural detail included in the novel is immersive – you could taste Silica’s fancy recipes, but also the subtler tastes of intrigue and power manoeuvring, political climate and social culture in 1798 Bucharest. The writing is both precise and poetic, and the reader is right there in the square, the kitchen, the secret laboratory with Pǎtca at all times, breathing in the dust and the herbs and secrets.
For secrets, lies and half-truths form the basis of the whole plot. What did grandmother Maxime and Cuviosu Zăval intend for Pǎtca to do? Where are the houses that she was supposed to find? Who committed the murders, and why? And who has her (magic) recipe book now? I was as invested as Pǎtca was in these questions and was completely unable to guess the answers to any of them until the author revealed them directly. Then, at the end, I was able to look back across the length of the story and see how all of the twists and turns hung together to create a clear tapestry after all, once you could stand back and take in the full picture.
Brimming over with magic and mystery, murder and misdirection, magical realism fans won’t want to miss this meal of the imagination, crafted by a talented master of her art.
‘Listen to me: don’t forget your mission! In a short time the braşoveancǎ leaves for Bucharest, and you absolutely must at all cost get a place in it! I need you. Go to Cuviosu Zǎval, who will tell you what you must do next! And until then, you know…’– Doina Rusti, The Book of Perilous Dishes
I knew: I was not to say a word about myself, not to indulge in loose talk with anyone. The first and foremost rule was never to say my true name. Even if someone should prove that they knew it, I was to flatly deny it. Not even dead was I to say it. My clothing was to be modest. My eyes cast down. Don’t laugh! Never show your teeth! Smile. Don’t grin and don’t chuckle! Joy shows only in the eyes. And of course—I was not to deviate from my path!
Doina Rusti is among the most important contemporary Romanian writers and is widely appreciated for the epic force, originality, and erudition of her novels. Award winning and translated into many languages, she has written ten novels, including The Phantom in the Mill (2008), The Phanariot Manuscript (2015), and The Book of Perilous Dishes (2017). Doina lives in Bucharest and is a university professor and screenwriter.
The Book of Perilous Dishes is available right now on Amazon.
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